Marriage at the Crossroads

Marriage at the Crossroads: Couples in Conversation about Discipleship, Gender Roles, Decision-Making and Intimacy by Aida Besancon Spencer, William David Spencer, Steven R TracyChristians like to publish books about marriage. Just look at some of the titles. As a pragmatic people, evangelicals like to consume how-to manuals and self-help books to “ignite the passion” and “divorce proof” your marriage. All that is well and good, but most of it seems marketed as books you have to read (out of desperation) and would never want to read (because they contain wisdom).

Furthermore marriage books tend to contain a number of opinions and assumptions on a variety of complicated topics that most couples may not share. Issues like parenting style, birth control, sexual intimacy, male and female roles, and the expectations that attend to those roles command a lot of attention and a lot of divergent views. Perhaps the most difficult and thorny problem emerges when we consider how couples interact on the basis of their conceptions of how the Bible’s teaching on authority and submission come into play.

Marriage at the Crossroads address this issue head on, and helpfully puts “couples in conversation about discipleship, gender roles, decision making, and marital intimacy.” Published under the academic division of if IVP, the book is authored by two couples: William and Aida Spencer representing the egalitarian view, and Steve and Celestia Tracy the complementarian view. Both couples are educated in the fields of New Testament studies, ethics and psychology. Bill and Aida Spencer both teach at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts and are ordained ministers in Presbyterian Church, USA. Steven Tracy is professor of theology and ethics at Phoenix Seminary and Celestia is a practicing psychologist in a private counseling clinic. Each couple has dealt extensively with New Testament interpretation, pastoral ministry, marital counseling, and coming alongside of those who have been abused or underprivileged.

The book is divided into four sections where the authors dialogue about marriage and being disciples of Jesus, headship and submission, roles and decision making, and marital intimacy. There is a fifth section authored by three other couples who come from different cultural backgrounds–Latino, Korean, and African-American–who offer reflections on the basically white American interpretation of the issues, and offer their own cultural perspective.

With such intersecting topics you might think that there would be some very controversial and confrontational ideas asserting themselves against one another. The gender debate in evangelicalism has become so rancorous today that it threatens to split denominations, churches, ministries, and perhaps evangelicalism itself right down the middle. It is a rare thing for there to be publications or civil discourse that encourages bridge-building rather than polemics, and Marriage at the Crossroads is such a rarity.

The Spencers and the Tracys are so close to each other in attitude and practice that it is almost laughable to consider what differences they have as representing some unbridgeable divide. Both have good marriages. Both respect and honor equality. Both practice mutual submission. Both are zealously faithful in their devotion to biblical authority. Both are considerate decision makers. Both deny rigidly prescribed roles that pertain to house duties, income earning, or parental involvement. Both are tender towards one another and share a high degree of intimacy that is both respectable and enviable.

What separates them? The Tracys reserve the right for the man to make the “deal-breaker” decision if there is ever the occasion (and there are few). The Spencers refuse to make a move if there is not consensus. The Tracys hold to innate gender differences that understand the man as the initiator/protector and the woman as the responder/nurturer, while the Spencers do not. The Tracys see a unique role in marriage following from these differences while the Spencers only see roles following from gifting and opportunity.

I’ve read both Bill and Aida Spencer and Steven Tracy before I came to this book (I have not read Celestia), and their styles of scholarship are clearly represented in its pages. The egalitarian Spencers, whose position is often thought of as looking to sources outside the Bible, cite the Bible to an almost absurd extent while the complementarian Tracys, whose position is often touted as ‘biblically based,” rests on many studies and journal articles from the social sciences! Interestingly enough, though I share full agreement with the egalitarian views of the Spencers, the scholarship and writing style of the Tracys impresses me much more.

The Tracys are fully aware of the problem of spousal abuse and have modified their position over the years. Early in the marriage Steven started out believing he was the “priest of the home” and took a very hard line approach to gender roles seeing his relationship with Celestia differentiated by hierarchy. As he became more convinced that word “head” in Ephesians 5:22-33 did not categorically mean “authority over,” and because Jesus’ ministry simply displaced any notion of patriarchy, he came to see his responsibility of “head” as possessing “authority to love” rather than “authority to lead.”

This explains why there is such a surprising amount of agreement between the two couples. If the Tracys were more in line with a hierarchical version of complementarianism there would be much more to expect in the way of difference. Their modified complementarianism is a breath of fresh air in a debate where such article titles like “After Patriarchy, What?” are published in all seriousness. What the Tracys propose really isn’t all that controversial, and even makes the Spencers’s method of prooftexting look a little strained. All sides can acknowledge that equality and mutual submission are welcome in the wake of patriarchy.

With stark differences out of the way the reader can absorb the many examples of wisdom each couple displays in their treatment of the other. Marriages typically end or are severely at risk, the Tracy’s argue, when a couple does not know how to confess and forgive wrongs. The Spencers agree and have a rule to not go to sleep if angry. The belief that Christ is both the authority and the reconciling force in marriage brings the couples to a joint submission to the task of peacemaking as they both seek to follow and obey Christ as Lord. Each couple tries to focus on the gifts and talents each other has and bring the best out of them, sacrificing and encouraging the other to make progress whether it be educational or vocational. Neither see one’s calling as more important than the other. Marital intimacy is protected by not allowing the cares of life to intrude on designated times of togetherness, and the notion that hierarchical roles and true marital intimacy (emotional and sexual) are compatible is rejected.

While taking a class that touched on the Bible and gender roles in my theological education, I remembered the professor making an attempt to calm the heated discussion by stating that the differences between complementarian and egalitarian marriages were basically minute. This book is proof of that. The divide has always been and always will be over how we interpret the Bible. But for any searching couple who wants to see how faithful couples live out their convictions the contents of this book should not be ignored.

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3 thoughts on “Marriage at the Crossroads

  1. gpok says:

    I’ve pretty much always been a complementarian. I’ve also pretty much always also believed in non-hierarchical complementarianism. In practice, I don’t see it as being all that different from egalitarianism, except on a few matters and bases. As such, so many arguments against complementarianism seem straw men, setting up a view that’s wholly foreign to me and then knocking it down.

    I don’t read much, but I might have to check this out.

  2. Chad says:

    I honestly don’t know what we are in our marriage… I guess it depends on the day. I do know this, after 12 years of being married I can honestly say that I love my wife more now than the day I met her. I’m blessed.

    As always, thanks Adam.

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