A Biblical Framework for Gender Roles in a Marriage

i-am-300x243Throughout history there have been many definitions for the roles in which the husband and wife should fill, yet often, these roles have fallen short or overstepped the boundaries in which Biblical philosophy has framed them.  This is not to say these specific attributes regrading martial statuses didn’t have their cultural purpose, but alarmingly so, their level of equality wasn’t conducive when juxtaposed against the Biblical text and how God intended those roles to be.  A patriarchal umbrella continued to plague the church in the centuries that followed the Biblical era, and even though various attempts to reestablish a sense of equality within the marital relationship, Christendom in general has nonetheless found itself intertwined between a myriad of tensions because of the strenuous task it sought in reaching into the covenantal attributes God had designed for humankind within the marital framework.  God’s intention therefore relies on the fundamental aspect in which the marriage between a man and woman is systematically defined by Biblical concepts precipitated in the creation story and thereby reconciled in Christ as equal in status and stature, yet distinct in contextual roles.

Biblical Philosophy

Biblical principles for the husband and wife show that they are equal in God’s sight.  “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh,” (Genesis 2:25, NIV).  Because God understood it wasn’t good for man to be alone, He created his counterpart, woman, to be his equal and become joined as if they are “one flesh.”  This unification is one family, or one unit, both equal in nature, status, and the image of God.  “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” Genesis 1:27, NIV).  When sin entered into humankind through Adam and Eve, both were cursed equally in context to their specific roles (Genesis 3:16-17), hinting towards the issues which would soon follow for woman in her submissive role to man.

Love was always the centerpiece for the equally submissive roles in the husband and wife, or albeit, man and woman, so that their distinctions would be inherently active and accepted under that framework.  The exchange of compassion and desire for each other is more evident in the Song of Songs when it says, “Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned,” (Song of Songs 8:7, NIV).  Riches are but second class to a good wife, and “Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the Lord,” (Proverbs 19:14, NIV, cf. Proverbs 31:10).  The beginning of a marriage and nurturing its spiritual wealth is by far more important than anything.  “If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married,” (Deuteronomy 24:5, NIV).  The bond between a husband and wife will draw from its early years throughout the course of the marriage.  “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth,” (Proverbs 5:18, NIV).  Husbands are to love their wife during the existentialities of one’s life.  “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 9:9, NIV).

New Covenant theology however, even though it had been pertinent for these roles to find their equal statuses in Old Testament theology, with Christ as the centerpiece of their relationship in Him, the institute of marriage took a formidable turn for the better.  In Paul’s epistles, this philosophy made headway, and the most notable of them all is in his letter to the Ephesian church.

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband,” (Ephesians 5:22-33, NIV).

Paul continues these concepts when he says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them,” (Colossians 3:18-19, NIV).  These philosophies were drawn from Jesus when He said, ““Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate,” (Matthew 19:4-6, NIV).   Likewise, Peter teaches in concert with Jesus and Paul, saying, “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers,” (1 Peter 3:7, NIV).  It is obvious that the intentional framework God sought was that both man and woman would be equal, while at the same time, differentiate in their roles within the family unit (1 Timothy 5:9-10, 14; Titus 2:3-6) in addition to both parents being equally responsible in raising their children (Ephesians 6:1-2).

Theological Discovery

Because of sin, which gave rise to the fall of humankind in Adam (Romans 5:12), the covenantal framework regarding the relationship between a man and a woman fell into patriarchal androcacy.  Jakobus Vorster says, “Patriarchalism and androcentrism (androcracy), were a vestige of sin and a remnant of the fallen creation, thereby has become null and void because of the reconciliation in Christ.”[1]  This relationship between a man and his wife are thus equal in Christ, and their distinct roles in the family structure were primarily discovered in the creation events, yet “inequality between husbands and wives as it was expressed in marriages in the ancient East and throughout history is due to the Fall.”[2]  Commenting on Genesis 1:28, Carrie Miles says that, “No gender specific responsibilities are given in creation, nor does the text imply that one sex will take a role different from the other.”[3]  Unfortunately, this didn’t last, as the gender specific roles had taken a drastic turn towards patriarchy.

In the Biblical era, wives were submissive in every sense of the word towards their husbands, and “women were unlikely to be educated or to have much interest in the things that concerned men.”[4]  In the Talmud it says, “It is forbidden for dogs, women or palm trees to pass between two men, nor may others walk between dogs, women or palm trees.”[5]  Or even worse, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women.”[6]  Dr. Habermas and Dr. Licona state, when referencing a female’s role as the primary witness to Jesus Christ’s resurrection, that the status of a woman was considered very much beneath that of a man, “since in both Jewish and Roman cultures, women were lowly esteemed and their testimony was regarded as questionable, certainly not as credible as a man’s.”[7]  But this wasn’t God’s intention for women’s role in not only society, but more specifically, in the marital unit.  Stinson and Jones propose that “The equality of men and women, then, is the necessary foundation from which to deal with all gender-related issues,”[8]  and ever since the fall of mankind, God’s intention involving “male headship and female submission between Adam and Eve, and sin brought about a perversion of these roles.”[9]

In New Covenant theology, patriarchal androcacy “cannot be regarded as biblical instructions for marital life because such a view would contradict the core principles of marriage”[10] as “God reconciled both men and women with Him, irrespective of gender or any other social differences”[11] in and through Christ, and the concepts that “marriage then is, according to scripture, a sacred bond that is characterized by permanence, sacredness, intimacy, mutuality and exclusiveness.”[12]  Since we are new creation in Christ, and thereby reconciled in God through our Savior Jesus Christ, the marital relationship between a man and woman in a covenantal marriage is restored and conclusively returned to “a culture of equality.”[13]  God therefore purposely framed the marriage covenant to provide “liberty for men and women to realise their relations according to their own wishes and circumstance as equals and gifted servants of God.”[14]

Unfortunately, this has not always been the case since the inception of Christendom.  Bernadette Brooten said regarding Augustine’s work ‘On the Good of Marriage,’ that the “ancient system of classifying sexual acts based on whether they conform to nature, to law, and to custom.”[15]  Brooten says Augustine’s work is “inextricably intertwined with inequality and hierarchy”[16] which sought “to solidify social hierarchies–between women and men, between the poor and the wealthy, and between socially marginalized persons and the elite.”[17]  Marriage revolved around “Procreation, fidelity, and sacrament: These were the three goods of marriage, in Augustine’s view.”[18]  St. Thomas Aquinas said concerning marriage that “marriage is a very great obstacle,” for it forces a person to dwell on the carnal and natural rather than the spiritual and supernatural aspects of life,”[19] while at the same time, he also affirmed the Biblical teachings of Paul when he said, “In the mystical sense, marriage signifies the union of Christ and the Church.”[20]  Yet, as for John Calvin, he believed “marriage was not just a two-way, but a three-way contract, man, woman, and God.”[21]  Likewise, Martin Luther understood the equality of gender roles for the husband and wife when he said, “God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling – not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.”[22]  Even though tension did exist to some degree, modern Reformers like A.J Köstenberger, who asserted, as Calvin did, “Marriage is not merely a human agreement between two consenting individuals, but a relationship before and under God.”[23]  Theologians like Barth argued that the “only structural differentiation in human existence is male and female,”[24] while Roberts and Sonderegger proposed that it “is up to men and women themselves to create their social roles within the covenantal relation, which is a relation of equals before God.”[25]

Corporate and Family Application

Although the church has struggled in defining the various roles for men and women in a marriage, it is evident that the intentional framework in which God had instituted it was for equality in both status and stature.  The apostle Paul said that no matter what race or culture we are from, we are all equal in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11).  “Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible says, ‘According to Yahweh God, what the earth creature needs is a companion, one who is neither subordinate nor superior; one who alleviates isolation through identity.’”[26]  As for the different roles and functions for the husband and wife, none of this negates the levels in responsibility both have for the family structure and for the church.  Randy Stinson says,

“In a church as in the household, redemption does not blur gender roles.  To the contrary, redemption empowers men and women to fulfill their roles in ways that acknowledge qualified men as teachers and leaders both of men and women.  For those who claim that this limitation in the involvement of women, it must be noted that a vast range of needs and opportunities exist for women to teach and lead other women in faithful obedience to God’s design and to God’s word.”[27]

Obviously, love is the central facet to equality between men and women in a marriage, and equal submission to each other is pertinent for its overall success (Ephesians 5:28, 33), because simply put, “Neither husband nor wife is superior or inferior.”[28]  Vorster concludes that the “idea of marriage as a covenant provides guidelines for modern-day marriage counselling and affirms the importance of marriage for the health of society and especially for the church.”[29]


Although there was a plethora of differing viewpoints in church history for a man and woman within the marital context, the original intention God purposed for them both pointed towards an egalitarian view, both made in the image of God, and their responsibility towards the family and the church are inherently fundamental to its overall success.  Reciprocal love between the husband and wife compliments their distinct roles, and although they may differ in some regard, it nonetheless defines whether marital equality is sequentially attainable. Husbands and wives are to serve each other self-sacrificially, just as Christ served the church in His death on Calvary, raising it to a new life in His resurrection, reconciled from the quagmire of sin.   In the end, marriage is a covenant between man and woman, but most specifically before God, for He is the Creator of such a context, and within that framework, it is fundamentally precipitated by the Author of love.  The apostle John concludes, God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him,” (1 John 4:16b, ESV).

[1] Vorster, Jakobus M. “Marriage and family in view of the doctrine of the covenant.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 72, no. 3 (2016): 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017), 3.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Miles, Carrie A., Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World, (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2006), 20.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Talmud Pesahim 111a.

[6] Talmud, Sotah 19a.

[7] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, “The Case fort the Resurrection of Jesus,” (Grand Rapids, Kregal Publications, 2004), 72.

[8] Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones, Trained in the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical and Practical Perspectives, (Grand Rapids, Kregal Publications, 2011), 76.

[9] Ibid., 79.

[10] Vorster, Jakobus M. “Marriage and family in view of the doctrine of the covenant.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 72, no. 3 (2016): 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017), 7.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] Ibid., 7.

[14] Ibid., 7.

[15] James F. Keenan. 2007. “Can we talk?  Theological ethics and sexuality.”  Theological Studies. 68, no. 1 (2007): 114. General OneFile (accessed May 4, 2017).

[16] Ibid., 114.

[17] Ibid. 114.

[18] Witte, John, Law and Protestantism : The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 204, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed May 6, 2017).

[19] Ibid., 206.

[20] Ioan. 2, lect. I, n. 338.

[21] Hawkes, Thomas D. 2007. “Sex, marriage, and family in John Calvin’s Geneva Volume 1 Courtship, engagement, and marriage.” Church History And Religious Culture 87, no. 2: 252. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed May 4, 2017).

[22] Mark D. Tranvik, Martin Luther and the Called Life, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2016), 97.

[23] Vorster, Jakobus M. “Marriage and family in view of the doctrine of the covenant.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 72, no. 3 (2016): 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017), 8.

[24] Ibid., 8.

[25] Ibid., 9.

[26] Miles, Carrie A., Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World, (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2006), 23.

[27] Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones, Trained in the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical and Practical Perspectives, (Grand Rapids, Kregal Publications, 2011), 79-80.

[28] Vorster, Jakobus M. “Marriage and family in view of the doctrine of the covenant.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 72, no. 3 (2016): 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017), 7.

[29] Ibid., 7-8.