Is a husband his wife’s saviour?

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Well the fire started the other day concerning sex, relationships and salvation doesn’t show any signs of dying down. Rachel Denhollander shared this from John MacArthur as another example of problematic teaching about marriage.

Now, to be fair to Josh Butler whose TGC article kicked off this whole debate, I think that he might say that he was seeking to take us in the opposite direction to where MacArthur was taking us.  Butler’s argument was that sex doesn’t save us and if so I would suggest that neither then do the participants, although Butler goes on to argue that there may be ways in which sex and marriage point us towards the Gospel and the Saviour. 

However, what was concerning about MacArthur’s statement was that a number of people, including some prominent voices responded to Rachel by suggesting that there was nothing wrong with what MacArthur was saying, that this was good solid complementarian and orthodox Biblical teaching.  Owen Strachan went so far as to suggest that the problem was with her.

So, I want to take a moment here to engage with MacArthur’s statement and to show why it is problematic.  I write as someone who holds to a complementarian position on marriage and church leadership.  For context, MacArthur was taking part in a question and answer session, responding to a man saying that he believed that under 1 Corinthians 7, he qualified to be seeking a wife and asking what he should be looking for.  There’s a lot to unpack there but let’s stay focused on the specific quote for now.

Here are the issues with what MacArthur has to say.  First of all, by applying the language of rescue and salvation to the husband here, he goes well beyond what Bible passages like Ephesians 5:21-32 actually say.  Ephesians 5 exhorts a husband to love his wife and it is in that respect that he is to follow Christ’s example. His love is to be a sacrificial one. I think that we might add from other contexts that there is a responsibility linked to headship in terms of provision and protection. However, that is not to suggest that it is salvific any more than at any other point when we are called to follow his example.  We are to be Christlike but that does not mean that we are to be saviours.  That role lies with Christ alone.

Now, of course, no-one is assuming that MacArthur means that the husband is the capital S Saviour of his wife rescuing her from sin and giving her eternal life. However, that doesn’t help for two reasons. First because in terms of our hermeneutics, we need to be careful to only follow analogy and example where Scripture invites us to, hence, we come back to the question of how husbands are encouraged to follow Christ’s example.

Secondly, because, when we set things us as things that we need a saviour to liberate us from, then we are giving a value or status to them which risks idolatry. That’s why we have an issue with the prosperity Gospel and the Social Gospel because both set up things like economic and health conditions as things that we need saving from.

Secondly, a few people have suggested that if anyone might be portrayed as needing help with loneliness, it is the man in  Genesis 2:18 and, it is the woman who comes to help him.  However, as has been pointed out helpfully by the likes of Christopher Ash, it is wrong to think that the issue on Genesis 2 is loneliness. God doesn’t say “The man is lonely, let’s find him some company.” He says “it is not good for the man to be alone.”  So God provides a helper.  The point is not that he is feeling lost, alone and sad. The point is that he has been commissioned to worship God, to fill the earth and to rule creation and this is a task that requires man and woman together. 

Thirdly, there is the whole issue here of how the woman is portrayed as somehow desperate and incomplete.  She needs saving because is lonely and unfulfilled.  There are three aspects to this.  First of all, the implications for single women are horrendous here. There again, there has been a push in recent times to argue that 1 Corinthians 7 talks about a gift of celibacy but not a gift of singleness.  So, if, contra Paul’s very argument in 1 Corinthians 7, singleness is viewed negatively, then perhaps it is no surprise to see suiters portrayed as saviours.  Though, to be clear, this should apply to both the husband and the wife.

The second aspect is that it presents the woman’s situation as miserable until her husband steps in.  Yet Scripture is, I believer, quite clear that  no-one should find themselves in a place where they are isolated and unprotected.  Back in Old Testament Israel, an unmarried woman would have experienced the company and protection of her family.  A single Christian, should additionally experience that protection and care, as well as the opportunity to use their gifts in God’s service as part of the church family.

This takes us to the third aspect of this last problem.  If I’m saved or rescued from something, then that means that I am removed from a dangerous situation. A goalkeeper saves a penalty, they prevent a goal from happening, a fireman saves a child from a burning building, a life guard saves you from drowning.  And there in lies the difference.  A lifeguard saves you from drowning but your swimming team partner doesn’t save you when you jump into the pool together because you don’t need rescuing, you need help in fulfilling a goal. Yes, when a  couple enter marriage, they have the opportunity to have children together (and yes, that, Biblically, is a good thing) but they’ve not been saved from something, because they were not in danger at that point. Rather, they’ve covenanted to partner together, with that as a potential goal.

MacArthur’s answer to the question fell substantially short, Biblically, theologically and pastorally.  A husband is not his wife’s saviour, nor is a wife her husband’s.  We have one Lord and Saviour and we do better both theologically and pastorally when we remember that.

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