Christian Marriage: Patriarchy or Partnership? (Published as “Elevate Marriage to Partnership”)

by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Author’s note: Below I have posted the original unedited manuscript of one of the earliest articles representative of what  later came to be known as “biblical feminism” or “evangelical feminism.”  It is considered part of the second wave of American feminism that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s and is reprinted here because of the interest shown by various scholars who have been researching feminist history and religion.

The article was written in the summer of 1967 and published in Eternity magazine in July 1968. Before its publication, the editors gave it a new title,“Elevate Marriage to Partnership.”  This article about a woman’s role in the home is a companion piece to my 1966 article, “Woman’s Place: Silence or Service,” about a woman’s role in the church. Click here to read the story behind that 1966 article.

Although if I were writing today I would likely write some parts of both articles differently, readers should keep in mind that both articles were considered quite daring and radical in the evangelical subculture at the time they were published more than four decades ago.  (Note that I have put a correction in the endnote for the opening quote, having written, in my original manuscript, the wrong century in which Kaibara lived. Also, in recent years, questions have been raised about the historical accuracy of the often cited story of a debate at the Council of Macon over whether women were human or if women had souls.  See this article by Michael Nolan. In reprinting my article below, however, I have refrained from making any changes in the manuscript itself as originally written.)

A separate post tells the backstory behind the writing of “Elevate Marriage to Partnership” and describes what changes were requested by the editors before its actual publication.

Unedited manuscript for article as submitted to Eternity magazine in 1967, published  July 1968.


(Published as “Elevate Marriage to Partnership.”)

by Letha Scanzoni

“A woman must look to her husband as her lord, and must serve him with all worship and reverence. The great lifelong duty of a woman is obedience. In her dealings with her husband, she should be courteous, humble, and conciliatory. . . .When her husband issues his instructions, the wife must never disobey them. . . .She should look on her husband as if he were Heaven itself.” 1

The above quotation is not an excerpt from a sermon on Christian marriage!  It is found in a marriage manual for wives written by a fifteenth century Confucian scholar named Kaibara and is still read in some parts of Asian today.  Confucius taught that “it is the law of nature that woman should be held under the dominance of man.” Why?  Because women were considered inferior.

The tragedy is that Christian marriage is often seen in a similar way. It isn’t unusual these days to read or hear that Christianity holds a low view of marriage and is derogatory in its remarks about women. This misconception has arisen because of certain interpretations of various passages of Scripture, while ignoring other passages.

“But no informed Christian would say that the Biblical teaching about the husband’s authority and the wife’s submission means that wives are inferior!” protests someone.  True — at least today it’s probably true. Yet, throughout church history, woman’s inferiority has been implied. Some of the most degrading statements ever written on the nature of women are statements of the early church fathers. In the sixth century, the Council of Macon had a serious debate about whether or not souls exist in human females! (It was decided that women do have souls — by one vote!) The Westminster catechism lists 1 Peter 3:6 (instructions for wives) under a section describing “the honor which inferiors owe to superiors,” while 1 Peter 3:7 (for husbands) is listed under requirements “of superiors toward their inferiors.” Bible commentaries speak of “the natural weakness of women” which requires their subordination.

The subjection of wives was even used to justify slavery. In 1857, F.A. Ross, a Presbyterian minister in Alabama, attempting to show that slavery was “ordained of God,” said:

“Do you say the slave is held in involuntary servitude? So is the wife. . . .O ye wives, I know how superior you are to your husbands in many respects. . . .Nevertheless he has authority from God to rule over you. . . .You are bund to obey him in all things. . . . You cannot leave your parlor, nor your bedchamber, nor your couch, if your husband commands you to stay there. What can you do? . . .You can, and I fear some of you do, wish him from the bottom of your hears at the bottom of the Hudson.”2

In rural areas, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was considered “right and proper” to use corporal punishment in dealing with one’s wife. Arthur W. Calhoun cites Emily Collins’s description of a pious Methodist class leader who beat his wife with a horsewhip every few weeks, saying it was necessary “in order to keep her in subjection” 3

Such examples are a far cry from the relationship between Christ and His Church which, according to Ephesians 5:21-33, Christian marriage should mirror.  And while this article is in no way intended as a call to arms, challenging women to “cast off their fetters,” I do feel that this subject needs to be examined anew. In a day when young men and women are educated similarly and are seeing one another not in terms of sex stereotypes, but as individual persons, many are asking, “Why must marriage be a dictatorship when we’d prefer democracy?”

I’m thinking now of two well-educated single women in their late twenties living in different parts of the country who both made statements to me similar to this: “I can think of only two or three examples of marriage in evangelical circles where there is real companionship — real love and joy and delight in each other as equals. Usually, though, I’ve seen Christian marriages in which the wife is a meek, passive, subservient little creature without any spirit–and I just couldn’t be like that. Nor would I want a husband who’d want me to be like that.”

I’m thinking, too, of the teenager who asked, “Why should the boy always be considered right just because he’s a boy?” and of the exhausted-looking mother of ten who said, “I never would have chosen to have so many children, but my husband insisted that we have a large family; and he doesn’t let me forget that the Scriptures teach that a wife must submit to her husband.”  I’m thinking of the graduate student who said he wants a wife who is an intellectual companion–a girl who isn’t afraid to disagree with him. It is for reasons such as these that I feel this issue should be explored further.

In the last several decades in America, marriage has come to be spoken of not so much in terms of respect, obedience, duty, and authority, but rather in terms of companionship, affection, comradeship, and equalitarianism. Many Christians see this as an evil. Yet, there are some Christian couples who would fully agree with this statement by sociologist Paul H. Landis:

“In marriage today, there can be a genuine sharing in nearly every aspect of life. This makes marriage itself a far richer experience than was possible under the old regime, and makes parenthood a shared joy such as it probably rarely was in the patriarchal family.” 4

Speaking of this “companionship” conception of marriage, a popular writer recently declared, “Among the curious features of modern woman’s life is one that would have thoroughly offended St. Paul. . .namely, the fact that she is her husband’s best friend and he is hers.” 5

But I don’t think Paul would have found that notion offensive at all. Surely he saw such a relationship in the marriage of his good friends Priscilla and Aquila!  Here was a couple that exhibited true comradeship in every area of life; they were partners in the business of tent-making, they worked together in teaching the Word of God, they traveled together spreading the Gospel, they used their home as a meeting place for Christians.  There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of either one seeking dominance, but rather perfect equality. Sometimes Aquila’s name is mentioned first, sometimes Priscilla’s — but always both names are mentioned together.

It’s possible that Paul knew of other marriages like that, too.  “Don’t I have the right to do what the other apostles do, and the Lord’s brothers, and Peter, and take a Christian wife with me on my trips?” Paul asks in 1 Cor. 9:5 (TEV).  Far from being contrary to Scripture, it would seem that this kind of marriage would be a fulfillment  of what God intends marriage to be for His redeemed ones. Two made one In Christ should be able to experience a depth of sharing, a richness of companionship, and a unity of purpose unknown to those who have never “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.”

Does that mean that we toss out as irrelevant such passages as Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18, 19; 1 Cor. 11:2-12; Tit. 2:4, 5; and 1 Pet. 3:1-7?   No, it only means that we see them in context and that we also balance them with the teaching of other passages of Scripture. To do so should help clear up some prevalent misconceptions and should answer many of the questions asked today. Perhaps it may help erase the guilt felt by some Christian couples who are perfectly content in an equalitarian marriage, never even bothering to ask, “Who’s boss?” until they hear a sermon or read an article insisting that “men must assert their authority, because the Bible’s only word to wives is to obey their husbands.”

Thus, I would like to suggest the following propositions:

1. The Ephesian passage does not portray a master-servant relationship. If Christian marriage is an “object lesson” showing Christ’s love relationship to His Bride, the Church, then we would expect to see between husband and wife a mutual delight in one another, a fervent desire to please one another, an unselfish desire to give instead of receive — to minister rather than to be ministered unto. There is responsibility on the part of both partners. To think that this passage goes along with the idea that “a man’s home is his castle and his wife is his janitor” is absurd.  There is no justification here for a docile child-wife having no mind of her own and no inclination toward personal growth and maturity. If the husband loves his wife to the degree that this passage teaches (Eph. 5:25), he won’t think of his wife as his obedient slave to be ordered about, but rather as his friend (see John 15:12-15), the one with whom he shares his plans, his interests, his dreams, his time – his very life. The wife, on her part, cannot help but honor–yes, submit to–such a husband. Like the Christian, she is proud to bear the name of the one who loves her so much, and she will want to share all she is and all she has with him.

2. Christian marriage doesn’t require the negation of the wife’s personality. Just because the wife’s role is to illustrate the Church’s submission to Christ’s lordship, it does not follow that the husband is infallible as Christ is, nor that the wife may never disagree with her husband’s ideas.  Else how would Christian marriage ideals differ from the Hindu demand that “a virtuous wife must constantly revere her husband as a god—thought he fail to observe the approved usages, or be enamored of another woman, or be devoid of good qualities” (Law of Manu)?  Peter’s reference to Sarah’s example in calling her husband her “lord” or “master” (1 Pet. 3:5, 6; Gen. 18:12 [KJV]) surely cannot mean that Abraham made all decisions unilaterally, that his wife made none, and that they never talked things over! In fact, it would seem Abraham would have been better off not to have listened to his wife in at least one instance (Gen. 16:2)! But later, when Sarah demanded that Ishmael leave the household and Abraham disagreed, God said to Abraham, “. . .whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named” (Gen. 21:12). An objective look at Sarah’s life does not by any means reveal a dull, colorless, subservient person.

3. It is untrue that the only alternative to a husband dictatorship marriage is one in which the wife rules. Among many evangelicals, there seems to be great fear of female leadership of any sort. However, family life authorities have shown that the equalitarian form of marriage so popular in America today does not require either spouse to be all-powerful. Equalitarian marriage exists in two main forms: some couples make almost all decisions jointly; other couples assign some decisions to the husband and some to the wife.

4. There is no Scriptural basis for maintaining that the “head and heart” analogy best describes the husband-wife relationship. Modern scientific studies have refuted the myth that women are less intelligent, less able to reason, than men. Anthropologists have shown that many common assumptions about “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics are cultural, not inherent biological traits. It has been pointed out that in Iran, for example, though a patriarchal society, it is the men who are expected to display emotion, sensitivity, and intuition. The women are the cool, calculating, practical ones.

Roman Catholic writer Sally Sullivan feels that most Christian instructions “do not explain on what level precisely a heart and head can communicate; how a ‘complementarity’ that locates reason in one person and emotion in the other can develop intimacy.”  Mrs. Sullivan says that in such marriages men turn to their male colleagues to discuss matters of most concern to them. “How can a man feel free to communicate his most intimate self to a person who is readily subject and willingly obedient; who is long on patience and dogged endurance but short on detached judgment, on curiosity about the world, on a humorous overview of their common experiences?” she asks. She believes that defining men and women as “radically different spiritually and mentally” strips the word “complementarity” of its true meaning, making marriage a “working association” instead of a personal relationship. 6

Notice the husband-wife relationship in Prov. 31:10-31. There is strength, wisdom, dignity, and maturity in the attitudes of both partners toward each other. Surely Ephesians 5 and similar passages cannot mean the wife must blindly go along with whatever her husband suggests, without so much as a comment from her!  There might be times that to do so would be a failure to “do him good and not harm” (Prov. 31:12). I’m thinking of several Christian marriages I know of in which the husband spends so lavishly that the couple is nearly crushed with debts, yet the wife feels her only responsibility is to submit to his desires and obediently add her signature to more applications for installment purchases or loans.

5. The Bible teaches equality in the sexual relationship of husband and wife. God intended sex to be pleasurable to both partners. The Christian wife who thinks of coitus as merely a duty to her husband (displaying a passive, submissive toleration, instead of creative participation) misses the mutual delight, the mutual giving and receiving that is God’s plan. Meditation on 1 Cor. 7:3-5 and on the entire Song of Solomon may help such wives view the sexual relationship as a beautiful, dynamic experience to be shared and enjoyed equally by both husband and wife, a fusion expressing their deepest feelings of love and unity in Christ.

6. The Bible teaches equality in the experience of parenthood. Throughout history, a common belief was that a child was engendered exclusively by the male. The wife’s body was only a “field” in which her husband’s seed was planted until it reached full growth and his child was produced. Modern genetics has, of course, exploded such a myth; and our knowledge of ova, sperm, genes, and chromosomes makes us aware of the part both parents play in bringing children into the world.  Many Bible scholars feel the phrase “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7) refers not to eternal life, but to the transmission of human life – i.e., the joint privilege of a married couple to share in the creation of new little lives.  And might it not be that the reference in this verse to woman as the “weaker sex” or “weaker vessel” has to do with the woman’s need for her husband’s understanding, protection, and care in relation to her child-bearing function?

Not only does the Bible teach equality in relation to child-bearing, but in child-rearing as well. Children are told to honor and obey both father and mother. And both parents must share in training up their offspring in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6).

7. Christian marriage means great responsibility for both partners. A marriage shouldn’t be permitted to “just happen.” It should be talked over, prayed about, and worked at. Couples differ, personalities are not alike, roles and division of labor may vary from family to family. What is important is that Christian living must begin at home. A selfish desire to dominate and manipulate either spouse (whether by subtle guile, or nagging, or overt domineering) is inconsistent with Christian principles (Phil. 2:1-11; Matt. 20:25-28).

Christian marriage should be a relationship in which each partner helps the other to grow in Christ, a relationship in which the fruit of the Spirit is clearly exhibited (Gal. 5:22-26). Such a partnership between a husband and wife has the potential of being one of the richest, most wonderful, most meaningful experiences imaginable.



1. Quoted in David and Vera Mace, Marriage East and West (New York: Doubleday Dophin Books, 1960), p. 73.  [I have since found out that the Japanese neo-Confucian philosopher Kaibara Ekken lived from 1630 to 1714; thus I should have referred to him as a seventeenth-century Confucian scholar, not a fifteenth-century one.]

2, Quoted in Arthur W. Calhourn, A Social Hisotry of the American Family, Vol. 2 (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1945), p. 96.

3. Ibid., p. 92.

4. Paul H. Landis, Making the Most of Marriage (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965), pp. 166-167.

5. Morton M. Hunt, Her Infinite Variety (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 199.

6. Sally Sullivan, “Woman: Mother or Person?” in William Birmingham, ed., What Modern Catholics Think about Birth Control (New York: Signet Books, 1964), p. 211.