I was getting drinks with a friend of mine recently, and she asked me a question I’d never thought about before. This friend had asked to get together specifically to talk about the topic of women in the Bible--one I care deeply about and have been steadily investing more thought in. She has her own questions about how God sees women, and about the differences in complementarianism and egalitarianism*, and she asked me: “Why aren’t there any couples in the Bible who are really good examples of male and female relationships?”
I was stunned by her question. Though I would argue there are a few instances of couples in the Bible who portray a healthy male/female dynamic (such as Ruth and Boaz) by and large she’s right--the vast majority of stories we’re given involve broken and sometimes truly horrific examples of men and women sinning against each other. Regardless of how one approaches the question of complementarianism/egalitarianism, her question is a very valid one. Why would God not provide an example to us of a blueprint for how men and women can thrive? Why would he not give us a model for how to treat one another, especially when it comes to things like marriage?
I have two answers--one that was immediate, and one that has come after mulling over the question for some weeks now. My first answer was this: there aren’t any examples of perfect male/female relationships in the Bible because it is not about us, it is about God.
I know how trite that sounds. Yet while it’s easy to say that the Bible is about God, it’s far from easy to believe it. This is why Sunday School teachers so often emphasize Biblical heroes like David and Abraham and Sampson instead of discussing their constant failures; we crave humans to aspire to be like. But the Bible is relentless in its emphasis on our own failures and its message of God’s faithfulness. We are not allowed to make an idol out of any of the humans in the Bible because it is God we must worship, and God alone.
The way relationships between men and women are depicted in scripture is no different; each story highlights the brokenness of humans and the faithfulness of God. Looking from the way Abraham cowardishly passed Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin, to how Rebecca deceived Isaac, to how David treated his many wives can be truly disheartening. These stories, and the many examples of women being abused within the pages of the Bible have caused both men and women to ask whether the Bible upholds and celebrates an ethic of abuse and the subjugation of women.
And yet the way we interpret these stories rests precisely in our understanding of my initial thought: the Bible only ever holds up God himself as the true example we must follow. Once we understand that we are not supposed to see the people in the Bible’s stories as examples to follow, but we are to see in their lives the brokenness of humans and the fact that God is displeased with them, it all makes sense. The Bible forces us to encounter the common failure of humanity and recognize the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way men and women interact, and we cannot solve it by ourselves. There is no example of a perfect man or a perfect woman to point to in scripture because there will never be a couple perfect enough to warrant our imitation.
As I’ve thought this over, it has brought me to the second answer to my friend’s question: the fact that there are no perfect examples of male/female interaction in the Bible is actually really good news for us. Though the weight of our constant failure as people may seem disheartening, the stories of those who messed up over and over in scripture is a lifeline for anyone who has truly reconciled with his or her own sinfulness. I know my own heart well enough to know that I will never have a perfect marriage. I know the marriages of those close to me well enough to know that though I can follow their example in some ways, they will always disappoint me as role models. Instead, I am encouraged when I look to scripture and see people exactly like me--cheaters, liars, selfish people--who were shown grace. Who were still used in God’s rich and beautiful story--whose names were recorded not because they did anything special, but because through them God chose to work and to fulfill his purposes.
As I thought through my friend’s question, and thought about men and women in scripture who treated each other as they were meant to, the best role models I could think of (other than Adam and Eve before the Fall) were Mary and Joseph. They certainly were not perfect, but I love the way God used and blessed them. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Mary models courage to us--saying yes to the terrifying prospect of having a child out of wedlock in a society that would stone a woman for such a thing. Guided by a dream sent from God, Joseph models the self-sacrificial love Paul talks about in Ephesians 5:25 and not only believes what Mary tells him, but changes his course of action based on that belief and joins her in the call God has given her. Their story punctuates just how much our relationships with the opposite sex--and particularly our marriages--need the work of the Spirit, and this is something to take seriously.
Together, Mary and Joseph give us a glimpse of what it means to be united to Christ--not that we will be made perfect in this life, for they certainly also had some spectacular failures. Instead their story highlights the great relief in the knowledge that we, like the rest of the men and women in the Bible, will never be the one people should point to. It is always God himself who deserves the glory and thanks for his lovingkindness to us. In a world of inequity and abuse, we can look to these stories and see that there is great hope in the redemption and reconciliation the Spirit brings to his people--both men and women.
*A very barebones summary of the two viewpoints: Complementarians believe that “God created two complementary sexes of humans, male and female, to bear His image together. This distinction in gender represents an essential characteristic of personhood and reflects an essential part of being created in God’s image.” Egalitarians believe “that not only are all people equal before God in their personhood, but there are no gender-based limitations of what functions or roles each can fulfill in the home, the church, and the society.” Follow the links to read more about each position.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele