Advice to Christian Couples Considering Marriage

Five categories of advice for Christian couples considering marriage: Talk, Touch, Attitudes and Experiences, Plans and Logistics, Relationship Skills

Dear Christian couple considering marriage,

You’ve been dating for a while now, and you think things are going well. You’re wondering if it’s time to consider taking your relationship to the next step: marriage. You understand that covenanting to someone is a big deal. Maybe you feel stuck because you’re so worried about making a mistake. You wish there was some sort of checklist to guarantee of a happy future together. Some people tell you you’re overthinking, but you long for some sort of rubric by which to analyze your relationship—just to be sure! So what are you to do?

Or…

Maybe you’ve fallen hard and fast for “the person of your dreams”, and you’re ready to sign the marriage contract yesterday! But others in your life are cautioning you that you’re moving too quickly, that compatibility is just as important as chemistry. But sometimes it’s hard to see straight enough to analyze matters of practical concern.

In either case (or if like most people you fall somewhere between!) marriage is a very serious step and there isn’t a checklist that guarantees “success”. However, there are general principles that are helpful to consider on the journey towards making healthy and wise decisions about romantic relationships.

In order to facilitate wise thinking and decision making in this area, I have compiled an extensive but not exhaustive list of points for consideration. My advice falls under five main categories: talk, touch, plans, experiences, and skills. Let’s look at each in turn.

TALK: Things to start talking about before engagement.
– finances: debt, spending habits, financial philosophy
– health: current and past physical and mental health
– if there have been any serious crimes or addictions in the past or present
– children: if you want to have any, birth control beliefs and preferences, child rearing philosophies
– family of origin
– formative experiences both positive and negative
– attachment styles (secure, anxious-avoidant, etc.)
– what you consider deal-breakers in a dating relationship and in a marriage, including your views on divorce
– relationship history
– if either of you have children
– sexual history, philosophy of sexual intimacy in marriage, any history of being abused, attitudes surrounding sexuality in family of origin
– specific fears and hopes
– future plans and goals
– theological beliefs
– political views
– gender roles
– who your friends and community are
– how you deal with stress
– past traumas and their current effects
– hobbies and interests
– pet peeves
– Note: if any of these feel too difficult to discuss on your own, they can be saved for premarital counseling.

I will intersperse helpful charts and lists from relationship experts whose research and advice I value.

TOUCH: As relationships head closer to engagement, it’s a good time to reflect on your current experience with physical affection.
– is your physical relationship growing? It generally should grow as other components of the relationship grow (and always within limits of holiness and preference).
– is physical affection mutual, enjoyable, respectful?
– do you understand and practice consent always with all kinds of touch?
– do you have a pattern of making wise, healthy, and holy choices regarding touch?
– are you able to communicate about physical touch–what you’re comfortable with, your convictions, what you like, what you don’t like?
– My opinion: exercising self-control regarding physical affection while dating can be greatly illustrative of a person’s character and bode well for future marital faithfulness. At the same time, I don’t think physical affection in romantic relationships is just a fun bonus. It’s actually a valuable part of the bonding process (as long as it’s not driving the relationship or veering into sin): it’s part of nurturing the emotional and romantic side of the relationship; it builds trust; it expresses and directs growing attraction; it lays the foundation for good communication about touch in marriage; and it can help provide a calm, joyful, and connected place from which to face the challenges of relationship.

PLANS AND LOGISTICS: The practical stuff!
– if you get married, where will you live?
– will you have one income or two incomes?
– where will you go to church?
– are there plans to move to a different city at some point?
– when do you want to get married?
– how long do you want to be engaged?
– do you want to have children?
– will you use birth control?
– what are your beliefs about gender roles and how will they play out?
– how much time do you want to spend together versus apart when married?
– how will you relate to your families of origin?

ATTITUDES AND EXPERIENCES: Your demeanor towards one another and your experience of being in relationship with one another.
– do you enjoy being together?
– do you laugh together frequently?
– do you find yourself feeling calm and happy after and during your interactions?
– do you feel safe and respected?
– is there mutual effort put into the relationship?
– do you generally feel free and able to express your thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires?
– are there any indicators of narcissism or abuse?
– do you want to spend the rest of your life with the other person?
– do you increasingly find yourself wanting to learn about the other person’s struggles and baggage not so much to analyze whether they would make a good partner but rather to better understand them and how to care for them in their places of weakness and pain?
– are they one of the first people you think to share your joy and pain with?
– can you rely on each other for help, advice, care, and support?
– do you trust each other?
– can you be vulnerable with each other?
– do you enjoy learning things about each other?
– do you get excited about some of the same ideas, hobbies, or causes?
– do you feel connected and understood?
– are you emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically attracted to each other?
– can you sit quietly in the same room together?
– do you still enjoy hobbies and friendships you enjoyed before the relationship? (If so, that’s a good sign.)

Read about signs and types of abuse here.

SKILLS: Relational skills that will help you tackle the known and the unknown.
– communication about thoughts, feelings, relational struggles, wants, plans, dreams, and fears
– fighting fair, conflict resolution, and relational repair
– knowing the components of a good apology and willingness to apologize
– balancing acceptance of what is with seeking growth and change
– identification of and care for your own emotions and needs
– identification of and care for your partner’s emotions and needs
– listening in order to understand and connect
– responding to “bids for connection”
– “speaking” each other’s love languages
– maintaining connection to healthy community as individuals and as a couple

OTHER THOUGHTS:
– I think that premarital counseling can be a beneficial thing for most couples. One of the best premarital counseling programs is called Prepare and Enrich. I would recommend seeing a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who is also a Christian as opposed to a pastor, though it’s beneficial to meet with a pastor once or twice too.
– John and Julie Gottman of The Gottman Institute have some of the best and most thoroughly researched information about healthy relationships available! I highly recommend checking out any of their resources. In particular, read up on what their research shows are the four most common predictors of divorce or what they call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. If any of those four things are present in a relationship, that’s a red flag.
– My advice can be summarized with the following questions: are you compatible enough, to the best of your knowledge? do you know each other well enough? do you want to commit to one another? do you enjoy each other and connect well? do you have the skills and motivation needed to continue growing as individuals and as a couple both before and after marriage? And do you have a supportive community that will help you along the journey?

If you are like me, it can be easy to get caught up in overanalyzing and perfectionism. Having high standards for our self and others is good, but it’s important to understand that: 1) every person has baggage and every relationship has challenges, and 2) the experience of and sense of connection in a relationship are just as important as a checklist.

If on the other hand you are likely to let your heart lead your head into unwise or unhealthy paths, I implore you both to healthily honor your passion and nurture your prudence. No amount of chemistry can make up for incompatibility or poor character. Take a little time to consider. It’s worth it. You’re worth it!

In closing, I sincerely wish you well! And I hope that some of what I’ve shared is helpful for you as you evaluate your relationship and set intentions for the future. Marriage is such a good gift, and it’s worth the effort to enter it the best way you can—walking in wisdom, not perfectionism.

“He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD.” Proverbs 18:22

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” James 1:5

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:15-16

Blessings,

Hannah 🌸

Decision-Making in Marriage (When One Spouse is Not the Automatic Tiebreaker)

One of the main objections raised to egalitarianism or even soft complementarianism is, “How does a couple make decisions if neither one of them is the tiebreaker?” I had a reader ask me this question on my recent book review of Rachel Green Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission.

In recent years, I’ve done much study on the Bible, theology, psychology, gender roles, and gender dynamics. All of that coalesced into realizing I had an idea of how to answer this question. I replied to my reader with my initial thoughts, and I decided I wanted to flesh it out further in this blog post.

Basically, I have identified three different categories of decisions that will need to be made in a marriage context.

  1. Group Decisions
  2. Individual Decisions
  3. Consent Decisions

It’s not as cut-and-dry as these three categories suggest, and sometimes they bleed into one another, but they still provide a helpful framework for looking at the different kinds of decisions couples need to make. Also, many of these principles can be applied to other types of relationships: friendships, dating, business, or other types of family relationships.

Let’s look at the three categories of decisions in more detail.

Group Decisions

This is the largest category of decisions and include such things as what restaurant to eat at or what schooling options to choose; these decisions affect the group and are best arrived at using communication and compromise to reach consensus.

When a husband and wife disagree on a decision, the first thing they should do is each explain their perspectives and try to truly understand the other person’s. Often, this will resolve the issue, as one will share information that will end up changing the other person’s mind.

If not, helpful questions to further dialogue could be:
– Who has the stronger opinion or bigger need in this situation?
– Who has more knowledge, expertise, or experience on this particular issue?
– Is there a way to compromise?
– What feelings, needs, or histories are each spouse bringing to the situation, and how can they be taken into account?
– Whose idea “won” last time?
– How can each spouse express care for the other regardless of what decision is made?

It is also appropriate when a wife chooses voluntarily to submit to her husband’s wishes, even if there’s not another specific reason to do so. Likewise, it is appropriate when the husband decides to love his wife by going with her idea, even if there’s not another specific reason for him to do so.

Individual Decisions

Some decisions have more to do with the individual than the couple. For example, what time to wake up in the morning, what hairstyle to have, or what book to read. In these cases, the other spouse may share advice or make a request—particularly if it affects them–but the person who is actually reading the book or waking up at a certain time gets the final say (though they should care a lot about their spouse’s opinions and requests!).

Consent Decisions

Another category of situations are those in which if both spouses do not freely say “yes,” the default is “no.” This could be as simple as deciding whether to have another family over to one’s house (since the house is both spouses’ space). Generally speaking, major financial decisions would fall into this category; both spouses should agree to major purchases, especially if they have a joint bank account. Sexual intimacy is another scenario in which two willing (and hopefully joyful!) yeses are absolutely required in order for things to proceed in a respectful (and non-criminal!) way.

Summary

But does this actually work in the real world? I have friends from various walks of life and different belief systems who say that this is how their marriages function. So yes, it is possible! Because when you have two people with good character and emotional intelligence who seek after healthy communication, true understanding and care, and a willingness to work together, things generally work themselves out.

Application

If you’re unmarried put in the work now to become this sort of person–for your own sake and for the sake of your present and future relationships.

If you are looking for a dating relationship, pay attention to if a potential date has these qualities.

If you’re married and your marriage already looks like this, I rejoice with you! Keep up the awesome work, and consider mentoring others.

If you’re married and your marriage does not look like this, please know that growth is very often possible—especially when both spouses are committed to it!

But here’s a very important caveat: if you are married, and your spouse is guilty of serious and unrepentant sin (such as adultery, abuse, or abandonment), please know that no amount of healthy communication or character on your part can fix your spouse, and if you choose to leave such a spouse, I believe you have done no wrong.

Resources

For those seeking personal growth, character development, and/or relationship strengthening, here is some advice and some sample resources:
– Sit under the teaching of God’s Word and fellowship with his people. These are tools the Holy Spirit uses to grow people in Christlike love and wholeness.
– Look into receiving professional counseling services (individual therapy and/or couples therapy).
– Seek out mentorship or discipleship opportunities by mature individuals or couples.
– Read books such as Boundaries in Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud (which I honestly haven’t read, though I’ve appreciated some his other books—which are sometimes a bit theological fluffy, so be discerning).
– Study materials put out by The Gottman Institute, which I see as the gold standard in relationship advice, and most of it is totally compatible with a Christian worldview.

And that’s it! Thus ends my musings and insights on how couples can make decisions together in ways that honor one another.

A big thank you to my reader who asked a great question which then inspired this post!

What about you? What advice do you have regarding how couples can make decisions well? What have you found works for you, or how do you want your marriage to work in the future?

When “Biblical Gender Roles” Aren’t So Biblical: An Evangelical Woman Reviews “Beyond Authority and Submission” by Rachel Green Miller

Some Christians ask, “Is it appropriate for men to read Bible commentaries written by women?” Or “Are women allowed to be police officers?” Others suggest that women are more easily deceived than men, and therefore cannot be trusted. Still others suggest that the fundamental difference between the sexes is authority and submission. For many people, these are the things conjured by the term “complementarian”.

About a year ago, I remember having a conversation with myself about gender roles. I’ve heard enough bizarre teaching and seen enough horrific behavior in my years as an evangelical to have gotten burned out on the topic of gender roles.

But last year I started wondering what the truth really is after we cut through all the distortions and cultural layers. It was in this context that I said to myself, “I’m not sure what I believe about gender roles, but it’ll probably end up being what Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd believe.”

Thus, when Rachel Green Miller put out a tweet asking for volunteers for her book launch team, I, in faith and with some trepidation, volunteered.

Rachel Green Miller is a theological conservative, a member in good standing at a Presbyterian church, the former editor of The Aquila Report, and a prolific blogger. All of her work is highly researched and clearly communicated, and she possesses the uncanny ability to see and trace connections between ideas and people. I know her primarily from her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation, and from Twitter. I gravitated towards her work immediately, feeling that she was both discerning enough and conservative enough for me to feel safe with and trust her thought processes. She has been immensely helpful for me in moving from being a “cynical evangelical” to a “discerning evangelical,” and for that I am immensely grateful.

For a more “official” introduction, here’s her bio taken from the P&R Publishing website:

Rachel Green Miller is a researcher and popular blogger who is passionate about elevating the dignity of women, improving the cultural conversation about gender relations, and defending orthodox Christianity. A member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, she lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Matt, and their three sons.

In Beyond Authority and Submission, Miller overviews the history of gender roles and the nature of men and women before looking to how these concepts apply in marriage, the church, and society. She summarizes the message of her book in this way:

“…as theologically conservative Christians, we must acknowledge where extrabiblical and unbiblical ideas about women and men have permeated, weakened, and confused our teachings. We need to move beyond a focus on authority and submission in order to incorporate equally important biblical themes in our discussions, such as unity, interdependence, and service. As we do, we will strengthen our vital relationship as co-laborers in Christ.”

In this book review, I will share highlights from each section and then give my response and recommendation.

Summary

Miller begins her book by clarifying that she is not comfortable identifying as egalitarian, complementarian, feminist, or patriarchalist. She does, however, believe that God created men and women to be equal and interdependent; that marriage is between one man and one woman, ideally for life; that husbands are called to servant headship and wives are called to voluntary submission; and that ordained church leadership is restricted to qualified men.

She does, however, disagree with many voices in complementarianism, such as the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Voddie Baucham, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Doug Wilson, and Mark Driscoll. Throughout her book, she provides dozens direct quotes from these organizations and individuals to back up her claims about what complementarians believe and practice.

History

In Greco-Roman times, women were viewed as inferior to men, had few legal rights, and were thought to operate in the “private sphere” whereas the “public sphere” belonged to to men. In Victorian times, women were treated as children, were expected to endure abuse by their husbands, and had no legal recourse if their husbands were unfaithful.

Things begin to change with first-wave feminism, which emphasized votes, education, and employment opportunities for women and chastity for men. Second-wave feminism pushed for allowing divorce in cases of abuse. Some feminists of this time bought into the sexual revolution as well as promoting abortion, whereas other feminists saw industries such as abortion and pornography as exploitative of women. Third-wave feminism is largely joined to the abortion and LGBT movements, with some exceptions, as well as being one of the drivers behind and the #MeToo movement, which helps men and women speak up against sexual violence.

From a historical Christian perspective, feminism is a mixed bag—doing much good as well as sometimes supporting immorality. As evangelicals grew in their concerns regarding feminism, they rightly spoke up for biblical truth, but unfortunately often “corrected” by doubling down on ideas borrowed from Greco-Romans and Victorians rather than Scripture; this has resulted in concerning teachings and practices in evangelicalism today.

The Nature of Men and Women

For many complementarians, the fundamental difference between men and women is authority and submission. A tandem belief is that women are more easily deceived and have a core desire to usurp male authority. Together, these beliefs set men and women up to be at enmity with one another.

Miller describes the typical complementarian belief that women are to be “submissive, gentle, quiet, responsive, soft, life-giving, and helping” while men are to be characterized by “strength, authority, and theological discernment and as being initiating, providing, and protecting.” She suggests that these stereotypes come not from Scripture but from culture. In fact, in looking at Scripture,there are positive examples of women leading and initiating (Deborah), providing (Lydia), protecting (Miriam and Abigail), demonstrating strength (Jael), and having theological discernment (Lois and Eunice, Priscilla). Likewise, there are biblical examples of men helping (Barnabas), being gentle and quiet (see the instructions in Paul’s letters to both men and women), giving life (Adam), responding to other’s leadership (Barak and Apollos), and being soft and tender-hearted (David and Paul).

Not only are the complementarian stereotypes not biblical; they can also cause harm and unnecessary pressure. Women who have strong muscles or leadership qualities may feel condemned in their femininity. Men who are short, like poetry, or have emotional intelligence may feel inadequate in their masculinity. However, these stereotypes are merely cultural. There is much freedom within the biblical definitions of maleness and femaleness for uniqueness, and we do well not to add cultural rules to biblical ones.

Marriage

When authority and submission are the main lenses through which complementarians view marriage, the man is seen to be the ruler (prophet, priest, and king) of the house while the woman’s role is to run the home in practical matters. Miller, on the other hand, believes that from a biblical perspective, companionship is at the heart of marriage, along with interdependence, unity, and service. Within this context, she affirms men are to be servant heads and women are called to voluntary submission.

When marriage goes wrong, the question of divorce is raised. There are three main views held by evangelicals. The first is the “Permanence View”, which is that no marriage is ever to be broken by divorce. The second is the “Adultery-Desertion View”, which is that divorce is permitted only in cases of adultery and desertion. The third view is the “Serious Sin View”, which allows for divorce in cases of serious sin such as all kinds of abuse. Miller advocates for the third, asserting that serious sin breaks the marriage covenant; divorce, when chosen, merely makes the broken covenant legal while freeing the aggrieved party from a broken situation. She writes:

Because we hold a high view of marriage, we need to acknowledge that some sins are so heinous that they destroy a marriage. Hard-hearted sinners who break their marriage vows shouldn’t be allowed to make a mockery of marriage through their actions. Marriage is important, but it’s not meant to be preserved at all costs.

Church

When it comes to church, some complementarians believe that men should be the priority, that women are theologically inferior, that men mediate between God and women, and that the church should have a masculine culture. All men are to lead in some capacity, and women may participate in hospitality and childcare.

Miller affirms that women have direct access to God and that only qualified men should be ordained (and therefore preach, administer church discipline, and administer the sacraments) while pointing out that in the Bible, women are shown as singing, praying, prophesying, evangelizing, learning theology, and serving. Miller suggests that women should generally be able to do anything that an unordained man can do.

Miller’s final topic in this section is abuse. Domestic abuse exists in all circles and is justified by people of all belief systems, but there is a particular kind of man who finds cover in hyper-complementarian churches. It’s imperative that we are honest about this, that we condemn both the abuse and the wrong teachings used to justify it, and that we prioritize the lives and safety of the women at risk. The world is watching, and the name of Christ is often slandered because of how churches respond to abuse victims.

Society

When it comes to men’s and women’s roles in society, some complementarians teach that men are to initiate and form while women are to complete and fill. They suggest that godly societies and persons will prefer male leadership in business and government and that female co-workers are dangerous. (Miller, as usual, provides ample documentation that these views are actually widely taught.)

Miller, on the other hand, points to Genesis in saying that work is a shared calling for both men and women. Education, also, is rightly given to all people. There is much freedom as to how men and women work and function in society, to be guided by wisdom, situation, needs, and preferences. Miller also points out that Scripture dignifies both business leaders and employees.

My Response

As I read this book, I found myself often and involuntarily saying either “yes!” or “ew!” as I was struck by Miller’s insights or horrified by quotes from others. What I read put words to my concerns and beliefs. Miller provided data and quotes backing up my intuitions regarding the problems in much of complementarianism. She connected the dots and showed where things came from.

I loved the biblical examples of men and women performing different kinds of tasks and displaying different types of character qualities! I felt a sense of relief and assurance that it’s okay not to fit societal stereotypes. I found myself wishing that various friends and acquaintances of mine who have struggled unnecessarily in the past could feel the same relief.

I love how Miller points to Jesus as the ultimate example of both authority and submission and urges both men and women to look to him as their model for both!

I really appreciated Miller’s balanced approach to feminism. It was fascinating to read a good summary of each of the different “waves” and then to realize that I’m probably a 60 to 66% feminist.

I love the emphasis Miller put on companionship in marriage. Over the years, I’ve been unsure and uncomfortable when I’ve heard people talk about marriage being primarily about either hierarchy or holiness. I think that in the biblical text, particularly the beginning of Genesis, companionship is at the heart of marriage.

In recent years, I have researched the topic of different Christian views on divorce. Hearing Miller list the three main views gave categories for me to better understand. The “Serious Sin View” lines up well with the PCA’s position on divorce, which is that unrepentant serious sin is a form of abandonment and therefore biblical cause for divorce. This is my position as well, and it was helpful to have Miller’s reasoning to further strengthen my position.

I’m very thankful that Miller touched on the topic of abuse in the church. This is something close to my heart, and I think there is opportunity for Christians both to repent of how they have dealt with abuse in the past and then to set an example for the watching world of what it looks like to treat with dignity and truth those who have been victimized by all kinds of abuse.

In general, reading Beyond Authority and Submission has made me less afraid of the topic of gender roles and more confident in my faith, the Bible, and in the wisdom that I have developed over the years. I feel affirmed in my belief that the Bible is safe for women when properly understood and practiced.

My Recommendation

In summary, Miller engages insightfully with topics vital to the health the church, the dignity of all image bearers, and the witness of the church before the watching world. I recommend this book for those interested in the connection between history and current Evangelical teachings, for those who want a robust interaction with Biblical truth, and for those who are developing their own theology of gender roles. This book is good for both church leaders as well as lay people, both men and women.

I will note that this book is from a primarily Western and Caucasian perspective, meaning that it looks at the history of the West and specific teachings prevalent in white evangelicalism in the United States today. Other cultures may be able to relate to varying degrees, but I want to acknowledge that Miller’s critiques may or may not be true of other cultures. (She never claims that they are, but for those reading in a different cultural context, I just want them to be aware.) For example, Kyle James Howard, a seminary student and biblical counselor, has written about the teachings and practices regarding gender roles in the African American church and how they differ from teachings and practices in many white churches.

Miller’s writing itself is clear and concise, well-organized and easy to follow. The concepts are fascinating, the historical overview is helpful, and the many quotes shared back up her claims regarding prevalent teachings in evangelicalism. She is committed to historical and credal understanding of the Christian faith and she has the endorsements of people such as Carl Truman, Aimee Byrd, Jacob Denhollander, Wendy Alsup, and Liam Goligher.

In conclusion, thank you, Rachel, for writing such an insightful and helpful book! I give it five out of five stars, and I highly recommend it. I found it personally refreshing, clarifying, and helpful. I believe it is an invaluable resource for the church as we wrestle with what it means to be biblically male and female in our homes, our churches, and our societies.

You can purchase it from Amazon here or P&R Publishing here.

I’ll leave you with a superb summary quote and call to action from Rachel Green Miller herself:

Too often we find ourselves fighting each other face-to-face instead of fighting side-by-side as we were meant to. From the beginning, when Eve was made to be a helper for Adam, they were meant to work together for God’s glory and for His kingdom. As believing men and women, we have been united together in Christ. Instead of being distracted by what could divide us, we should focus on what unites us. We are the body—the church. Through the work of the Spirit, we are knit together and our true goal has been restored: women and men united and interdependent, serving together as co-laborers, glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.