I once had a conversation with a fellow pastor and we somehow ended up talking about gender roles in marriage. I was advocating for a more “everybody-is-equal” point-of-view, and he was telling me how weak I am for holding that opinion. “The man is supposed to lead and be in charge,” he said. And so he challenged me: “So in your marriage, who’s in charge?”
“Why does anyone need to be in charge?” I asked. “Isn’t the idea of marriage that you’re supposed to be partners?”
“Well, sure,” he said. “But if you have to make a big decision, and the two of you can’t come to an agreement, who gets the final say?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t mean to sound naïve, but I’d like to think we’d keep working through the issue until we find a compromise.”
“But what if you can’t come to a compromise?” the other pastor said. “What would you do then?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “I can’t imagine what kind of scenario would call for that. Are we talking about diffusing a bomb or something?”
He wouldn’t let up.
I know what he wanted me to say. He wanted me to concede to his assertion that ultimately the man rules the household and that any perceived power held by the wife is merely an illusion.
There is a Bible verse that people sometimes use to propel this point-of-view. In Genesis 3, humanity has deviated from its original path and has chosen a more destructive way of life. At a certain point in the story, God enters the dialogue and speaks to humanity. In verse 16, this God says to the woman in the story:
“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
And so for thousands of years, people have taken this verse and said, “You see? The man is supposed to rule over the woman. Even God says so!”
Here’s the problem with that method of thinking: Genesis 3:16 is a curse. It appears in a string of passages in which God is making observations about what a broken world will look like. This is a lament over what has been lost in the process of eating the wrong fruit and choosing the wrong path.
In other words, Genesis 3:16 is not God saying, “Now go and do this.” Instead, the verse is essentially God saying, “Don’t you see what you’ve done?”
It is a curse.
It is a lament.
It is a description of a broken reality.
The first two chapters of Genesis describe a state of reality that is good and whole—the way things were meant to be. The third chapter of Genesis describes what happens when all of that goodness and wholeness falls apart.
Hebrew scholar Nahum Sarna says it this way:
“It is quite clear from the description of woman in [Genesis 2] that the ideal situation… was absolute equality of the sexes. The new state of male dominance is an aspect of the deterioration in the human condition” (JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis).
What’s being described in Genesis 3:16 is what happens when we choose a broken path. God is saying, “For the rest of time, there will be women who struggle with their own sense of identity because they will define themselves by their relationships. They will find their worth in how other people interact with them. And then there will be men who will exploit that and leverage all kinds of power and manipulation over these women.”
So thank goodness things have changed so much.
It’s not insignificant that the passage that immediately follows verse 16 talks about how the man will work tirelessly by the sweat of his brow and he will thanklessly labor until he dies.
I work in an air conditioned room in which I almost never break a sweat, and I really love what I do. So are my lack of sweat and feeling of fulfillment signs that I am being disobedient to God? Should we shame men who love their jobs because Genesis 3:19 says that we will toil and struggle all the days of our lives?
When we find circumstances in the world around us that contradict what we see in Genesis 3:16-19, we should celebrate it. This means we have somehow—in a very small way—transcended the curse. We have found something good and beautiful in the midst of the chaos. If you find a person who loves his job or a marriage based on mutual respect and submission, you are witnessing someone who has overcome something dark and has reclaimed something beautiful about reality.
So here’s what we need to do: We need to stop treating Genesis 3:16 like a “life verse.” Stop citing this passage as the way things were meant to be, because it isn’t. We were created for something better than that.
Our role in the world is to reclaim the goodness and beauty that was originally created, not to wallow in the brokenness and claim it as God’s will.
So who’s in charge in our marriage? Neither of us. We submit to one another, because that’s the reality we were created to live within.