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A Non-Headship Marriage Part I: A Threefold Cord

I rarely talk about marriage. As far as I’m concerned, mine is sacred, and I don’t keep it out in the public space. I’d fight anyone for it. Of course, Tim would be highly amused if you’d like to test me on that.

In Ecclesiastes 4, there is a passage often related to marriage.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Hint: it’s largely the “lie down together” bit that makes it so applicable to marriage. But even at its widest usefulness it is kinda limited to guerrilla warfare, sexuality (taking into account Paul’s suggestions for Christian marriage) and of course, getting out of holes. But I’ll assume you don’t fall over and get stuck often.

There are other passages I find less helpful but are far more quoted. These are ones that characterise the relationship between husband and wife hierarchically, called “Headship Theology” (the subject of my next post). As a doctrine, in its best form, it may be highly useful for some contexts. But it is under scrutiny for its links to domestic violence. and this really needs further research. It’s important to know, then, that there are Christian THEOLOGIES of marriage, just as there are Christian theologies of most things.

This Ecclesiastes biblical passage presents a simple metaphor, of a three-fold cord, or a rope. And it’s a fitting one that I have seen so clearly in my own life. It’s now March, but we’ve already had a shocker of a year, for a number of reasons. The smallest one is that my stupid PhD (aka worst-best-decision-of-my-life) is taking longer than it should for practical and also earth-shatteringly annoying reasons. I’m grumpy. Anyways, despite the challenges and largely because Tim is a lovely person, he’s still here, and we’re still together. Anything I’ve accomplished or done well in the last ten years is because I have a husband and best friend that has, until this moment, been solid like a rock. This wasn’t my expectation of my future husband or anything. He just displays the characteristics of a large rock. If he refuses to do something, it’s not going to happen… if he wants to, he will. He’s a force of nature. But, in the last two months has Tim experienced what we’re calling “a personal growth” in his mouth that eventually needed day surgery. Non-cancerous. Phew. Last week, he was hit by a drunk driver while sitting at a stoplight. And his desire to reverse youth homelessness in Sydney’s suburbs has been diminished by what I can only describe as bone-wearying intentional pettiness. I hear only portions of his stories, but they make me crumple up tired. As any partner will know, the challenges of one often feel compounded for the other. So this has left me feeling altogether more up-ended and un-moored. We’re both Christians, and so our marriage and faith intertwines, as represented in the “three-strand cord” verses above. Thankfully. Because in the last few months, we have both been raw, and there have been moments where I’ve stopped and thought “I can’t really say much else today, but gee I have a good church and a good God”. It might be a lot easier for me to throw a dice, re-position myself and start again with less responsibility. But I’m married and I want to stay that way. So, community is invaluable to me right now. It is actually my belief that all successful marriages, whether secular or sacred, interweave with a community — and ours happens to be centered by our regular connection with people of faith, who remind us that God Himself is holding us even when we can’t hold back. I think this is what the Jewish writer of Ecclesiastes meant in this passage. Similar metaphors are used for community in the bible, including a crucial one, the “perichoresis”, or the Trinitarian relationship (the Trinity is the three persons of God) that is often conceived as a dance. In other words, the Christian God dances as a three-in-one community. The point of our marriage is not to figure out who’s in charge, and when. The point is that our togetherness bear mutually life-giving results, representative of transformed character. The Christian marriage intentionally reflects God’s deep spiritual union. And yes, we still believe in the goodness of the Christian church. Radical I know. I do read newspapers. Even in a “happy clappy” church with screens that project our song lyrics, and people raising their arms and dancing (this is sarcasm, people), we’ve experienced the healing power of a sacred, Spirit-infused place and people. That’s not to say our beliefs aren’t challenged. Lately, a string of Christian leaders we trusted have really disappointed us. We should be used to it now, I guess. But occasionally I get shocked, and it *gets me* really, really deeply. Like a few weeks ago when we realised the extent of the manipulation and deception of a former Christian leader… Now, I can distinguish between someone who is using the church, and the church. Many Christians can’t. But when a preacher stands up to the pulpit, rightly or wrongly they are claiming to embody the things they preach. And when they don’t, it can be devastating. I’ll admit it, I lost it. I started crying. I felt like an out of control Koala.Tim looked at me with tears in his eyes too and said, “Yeah. I don’t get it. But there’s one thing I’m not disappointed by. You. After ten years, you’ve never disappointed me. I’ve never regretted you. Ever.” And so I had another moment of gratitude. All else right now might be blowing up around me, but gee I have a great marriage. There’s no way you could brave all the storms of life and keep your marriage and heart intact without back up lines. The only way to do so (and stay married) in my opinion is to have all three strands, woven together by God. There’s nothing in this image that denotes hierarchy. Obviously, God is all-powerful, if we had to state the obvious. But it’s not the metaphor that’s used. The image here points to an interwoven becoming. I know that in my own ability I cannot make my marriage work. It relies upon both parties constantly contributing. But our faith community and commitment to God make it a three-strand cord. If I have any strength in my life, it’s this. Tanya is a PhD student at Fuller Theological seminary. She published a number of well-known songs through Hillsong Music Australia, including ‘Jesus, What A Beautiful Name,’ which reached #6 on Australia’s CCLI worship charts. Her album 'Grace' is available on iTunes. You can read more from Tanya on her blog

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