Because He First Loved Us

Rachael and I have been married for over five and a half years now.  We had a post-Christmas wedding because everything was available the week after the holiday, and there was the bonus that the church where we got married still had its Christmas decorations up.

Our colors were red and white.

The six months prior to that was a highly stressful time in our lives, because we were both graduating from college, trying to find our first grown up jobs, and trying to plan a big party for our friends and family.

Somehow it all worked out.

In the midst of that planning, Rachael and I had to come up with our agenda for the ceremony (there’s actually quite a lot of variation in how you can organize a wedding ceremony, but we did not know this until it was time for us to do the organizing).  Being clueless twenty-two-year-olds, we did a lot of research on the internet to figure out what we could do, and in the process came to the conclusion that whatever else, we wanted to write our own vows.  These were not going to be your typical silly vows with promises to do things like make banana smoothies together every weekend; we wanted to do something that was biblically based.

We did a pretty good job of hitting all the high points (so good, in fact, that our pastor appropriated our vows as an option for his subsequent clients when planning their ceremonies; this is very flattering, but always just a little weird when we go to a wedding and suddenly hear our own vows being spoken by our friends) with faithfulness to each other, commitment to better understanding God and the world together, and promises to encourage one another continually.

It’s some good stuff.

There’s one line in our vows where we decided to diverge and make them gender specific.  They go like this:

Me: I will lead you and make you holy, out of love, as Christ leads and makes the Church holy out of love.

Rachael: I will submit to your leadership voluntarily, out of respect and love, as the Church submits to Christ out of love.

We based that line on the passage in Ephesians 5 where Paul instructs husbands to love their wives like Christ loves the church and wives to submit to their husbands in the same way they submit to God.

It’s kind of funny looking at it now, because the language doesn’t really match up so well.  I’m not sure where the leadership bit came in, because that’s not in Ephesians 5.  I also don’t recognize the bit about Rachael respecting me, though I suppose that’s a pretty practical thing to throw into your wedding vows.  I feel kind of bad in retrospect that I didn’t vow to respect her.  Also, now that I think about it, it seems kind of presumptuous that I’d take on the task of making her holy; that’s not something that Paul says the husband should do.

What were we thinking when we wrote these vows?

The short answer is that we were thinking along complementarian lines at that point in our lives.  It left us with some odd ideas about how to interpret the submission passages, one in particular being that Rachael was supposed to be the one doing most of the submitting.

After over five years, we’re pretty sure that’s not how this marriage thing works.

At the time when we were doing our pre-marriage counseling (definitely a good idea, that one) we worked with our pastor for a couple months talking about important issues that we needed to have an understanding about, and one thing that came up was the point that even though Paul wrote instructions to both the husband and the wife, what people commonly do when they’re talking about these passages is to emphasize what the other person is supposed to do for them.  We had it drilled in that that’s a mistake.  Our pastor told me that I was to focus on what my responsibilities to Rachael were, and somehow in there leadership got thrown in.  I suppose it had something to do with the linguistic assumption that submission is part of a dichotomy with dominance.

Of course, the problem there is that somehow I ended up throwing in a component of my vow that wasn’t based on my responsibilities as laid out in the Ephesians passage.  I extrapolated leadership by assuming it was the complementary part to submission, which was listed in the wife’s duties.  Before Rachael even walked down the aisle, I’d already begun focusing on what she owed me as a wife instead of focusing on what I was promising to give her.

That’s not any kind of submission.

I’ve written a little bit before about how we came to discard the complementarian marriage model in favor of a more egalitarian one.  Part of it happened because our personalities just don’t mesh well with the leader-follower model.  Neither Rachael nor I prefer to be in charge most of the time, so we opted for a partnership model where when it comes to making major decisions, we each have an equal voice.  It helps us share the responsibility, which makes both of us happier.

Part of the change also happened because of uncontrollable circumstances.  I was unemployed for a couple years while I was getting my second degree and looking for a job in education (I just knew that 2009 was a good year to jump back into the job market), so Rachael had the sole income for our family while I spent a lot of time at home.  I think this forced reversal of complementarian gender roles went a long way in helping us see that the whole construct was rather arbitrary and a source of discomfort in our marriage.

We joke that we’d love to get our hands on those wedding vows that we wrote up and just polish them a little bit now that we’re both more experienced as writers and spouses.  For my part, I’d probably take all the leadership stuff straight out, and instead emphasize the partnership.

I’d also probably make more explicit our core verse, which we had inscribed on the inside of our wedding bands: “We love because he first loved us.”

Within a theological framework that defines love in part as willingness to make yourself vulnerable before another person, saying that our love stems from the love that God first showed us seems like a far better starting point than suggesting that one of us has to be the leader and the other the follower.

Really, I think that partnership looks a lot more like submission.

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