Book Review - Just How Married Do You Want to Be?


Paperback, 178 pages
IVP Books (September 2008)
ISBN-10: 0830833935
ISBN-13: 978-0830833931

Jim and Sarah Sumner knew from the start of their relationship that they were an unlikely match. A former male stripper and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School were just not meant to be together—or so many people thought. But twelve years (and many counseling sessions) later, Jim and Sarah are still married, minister beside each other, and have recently released a book together. Just How Married Do You Want to Be? is the theology and story of how they’re overcoming massive differences to become one in Christ.

As the subtitle, “Practicing Oneness in Marriage,” suggests, their book aims to move beyond the classic stereotypes that characterize most Christian marriages. Instead of discussing gender roles within marriage, the Sumners focus on the biblical concept of “one flesh” union and its resulting implications. This approach allows them to attempt a middle road between the complementarian/egalitarian debate that has been raging in broader evangelicalism.

Theological Shift

Because the Sumners are attempting to establish what they term a “new paradigm,” a significant portion of the book is given to a theological overview of the concept of headship, especially as it is expressed in the head/body metaphor of Ephesians 5:22-33. In these chapters, they contribute an interesting, if somewhat novel, perspective to the current discussion. Rather than emphasizing hierarchy, the Sumners argue that the headship imagery of Ephesians 5 is primarily teaching the intrinsic “oneness” of a married couple.

Undoubtedly much of the current controversy has revolved around what Paul meant when he wrote that “the husband is the head of the wife” (Eph. 5:23). Complementarians (the Sumners use the phrases “business model” and “democratic model” to distinguish the two perspectives) contend that Paul uses the word head (kephalē) to primarily convey the concept of “authority.” Thus “the head of the wife” is often understood as “the leader of the wife.” While, on the other hand, egalitarians argue that kephalē simply communicates “source,” as illustrated by the fact that Eve was taken from Adam’s side in the Genesis account.

The Sumners reject both of these explanations and propose that the word kephalē should be more accurately read only for what it is—a literal “head.”  According to their new paradigm, when Paul uses the metaphor of a head and body to describe the marriage relationship, he is doing simply that, using a metaphor. And as the Sumners put it:

  1. Metaphors are not meant to be taken literally.
  2. Metaphors are not meant to be defined (p. 38).

Therefore attempts to extend the metaphor of a head and body beyond what the text specifically states miss the whole point—the mystery of one flesh union.

In this new context, the neighboring verses that command a husband to love his wife as he loves his own body and a wife to submit to her husband make sense. But they do so only when understood in light of the organic unity that two individuals share through the institution of marriage. Again, the Sumners state:

When you think of the biblical picture [of a head and body], it’s obvious why the wife is commanded to be subject to her husband “in everything.” How could she not be? As his body, she is attached to him as head in everything. (p. 69)

And further,

The husband is commanded to love his wife—for in doing so, he loves his own body! When a husband understands that his wife is “his own flesh,” he can’t help but love her. (p. 70)

The argument is at its strongest when the Sumners draw conclusions about why divorce is so horrific. If the relationship between a husband and wife functions primarily as a business, then divorce is simply the dissolution of a corporation. Worse, if it is a democracy, divorce is no more than the termination of a contract between consenting parties. But if, as the Sumners suggest, Paul is using the head/body metaphor to hit home the “one flesh” concept, the divorce of a man and woman suddenly becomes a gruesome decapitation.

The rest of the book shifts to the practical applications that stem from marital oneness. Having rejected role playing, the Sumners address the topics of resolving conflict (via Matthew 18), defining expectations, and working through “hot button” issues—those irritations, specific to each us, that trigger sinful reactions. The goal of these chapters is not so much to provide explicit solutions as to teach married couples how to avoid and resolve problems that interrupt one flesh unity. After devoting another chapter to identifying certain personality types, the book wraps up by driving home the need for every Christian couple to exist in community with the rest of Christ’s body.

Same Song, Different Verse

Just How Married Do You Want to Be? is essentially the sequel to Sarah Sumner’s book, Men and Women in the Church. In her first volume, Sumner, who is a theology professor at Azusa Pacific University, applies her unique perspective of gender to roles within ecclesiastical ministry. This second volume brings the discussion full circle by applying it to the marriage relationship. In the introduction, Jim Sumner describes the writing process like this:

Sarah wrote the entire first draft, generating most of the book. She drew from her research and incorporated paragraphs from sermons I had preached at our church. When we revised the book, I dictated my thoughts in portions, and Sarah wrote them down and pieced my thoughts to hers… the publisher adapted the manuscript … then Sarah revised the book once again. (p.17)

I couldn’t decide if this is a confession or a disclaimer since, unfortunately, the book would benefit from several more revisions. There is still an obvious disjointedness and tension between the two narratives, creating a text that could be politely termed non-linear. Less polite descriptions include rambling and circular.

Furthermore, much of the book is written in the first person despite the obvious fact that there are two authors; this presents a problem for reader. The authors’ solution is to parenthetically identify the speaker after the use of the pronoun “I.” While this approach is awkward at best, at times it is down right confusing and eventually reaches a ridiculous climax in the following excerpt:

What we learned from that counselor was that both of us had selfish expectations. Both of us were driven by two little words: “I want.”
            “I (Sarah) want romance.”
            “I (Jim) want space.”
            “I (Sarah) want love.”
            “I (Jim) want respect.”  (p. 112)

Normally these structural flaws would be distracting, perhaps irritating; in this case, given the theme of the book, they are absolutely ironic.

The Debate Continues

Despite these flaws, Just How Married Do You Want To Be? is an interesting addition to the gender debate. And it becomes all the more so when you know the back story. Not only is Sarah Sumner a theology professor and author, she is also a teaching pastor at New Song Church in San Dimas, CA (curriculum vita). And now for the twist. While at TEDS, Sumner studied under noted complementarian Wayne Grudem and even invited him to sit on her dissertation committee.1 Clearly Sumner has been walking a fine line between the two camps for most of her adult life. This book is no exception.

For complementarians, there’s a lot to dislike. While the Sumners’ argument to interpret the head/body image simply as a metaphor may pique one’s curiosity, it does not sufficiently answer the next logical questions. What are the implications of the image of head and body? If kephalē corresponds to a literal head, doesn’t it bring with it the understanding that the head, at least in some way, governs the body? Surprisingly the Sumners say no.

In the Sumners’ paradigm, a wife’s submission can (even should) exist without her husband’s corresponding leadership. It is complemented instead by her husband’s sacrificial love (vs. 25). The Sumners go so far as to say that

the husband is not called to be his wife’s “spiritual leader”…. Yes, the husband is commanded to minister to his wife, but she is commanded to minister to him, too (p. 62).

The Sumners insist that, while paralleling Christ’s headship, a husband’s headship is not the same as Christ’s being the Lord and Savior of the Church. They believe that the initial analogy is limited to expressing unity and does not extend to the husband having leadership, spiritual or otherwise, over his wife.

Perhaps the greatest objection that complementarian readers will have is based on Mrs. Sumner’s life and ministry itself.2 It’s nearly impossible to read this book without getting the distinct impression that she is the more vocal and theologically ambitious of the two. Whether or not this is an accurate reflection of the Sumners’ marriage, the appearance certainly does not mesh with a traditional complementarian model and will be an immediate turn-off for complementarians.3

On the other hand, strict egalitarians will be equally (no pun intended) dissatisfied with this book. Utilizing Grudem’s research on the meaning of kephalē, the Sumners debunk the egalitarian interpretation that the word means “source” and insist that the Biblical injunction for wives to submit to their husbands is in force without a parallel command for husbands to submit to their wives. They state it this way:

Another problem with exchanging the word head for source is that the headship of the husband practically ends up becoming irrelevant. In a democratic model of marriage, the husband, as head, is required to submit mutually to his wife who is not the head. Thus the husband’s headship—in practical daily terms—means virtually nothing. (p. 43)

Not exactly the message egalitarians would hope to hear from a woman who is a seminary professor and pastor.

What to Take Away

The book does offer some points that everyone can agree on. The Sumners seem especially burdened that Christian couples move beyond role playing and embrace a truly Christian concept of oneness, the kind of oneness that comes only by spiritual growth. They say,

To become one flesh is to engage holistically in self-giving mutual love. To love is to be selfless. To love is to be Christlike. (p. 11)

And they recognize that this cannot happen apart from the Church.

Apart from Christian community, couples are prone either to fall into a pit of marital fights or into … a false sense of oneness that couples experience when cooperating together in sin (p. 156).

But

by the strength of Christian community, the full body of Christ … Christian couples can truly become transformed people. (p. 167)

And isn’t that really the best advice any book on marriage can offer?

1 Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003) pp. 37-38.

2 Dorothy Kelley Patterson, of the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, expressed her opinion that although “Sumner wants to distance herself from egalitarianism… she is a perfect fit.” (https://www.cbmw.org/Journal/Vol-8-No-1/A-Review-of-Men-and-Women-in-the…).

3 Sumner vocalizes this possibility in the introduction: “As a woman theologian, I feared that some in the church would see my husband as the only viable author for this book (p.18).”


Hannah R. Anderson lives with her kephalē in rural Pennsylvania where he pastors Flatwoods Baptist Church. She spends most days chasing three little people, helping in church ministry, and looking for the odd moment to write.

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There are 6 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

Thanks for the review. From the info here, it looks to me like an attempt to advocate the egalitarian view under a different name. Sounds like they see a real difference between their oneness view and egalitarianism, but that there really is a difference looks doubtful.
It's always interesting to me how egalitarian-minded writers on this subject point to things like mutual submission and mutual edification (or in this case oneness), and think that it somehow erases the headship idea. If they are correct--and "headship" adds nothing to mutual submission/oneness--there is no reason for the headship passages to even exist!
But the truth is that the headship concept coexists with mutual submission and edification, yet is something substantial in addition to it.
Any persuasive effort at an egalitarian-marriage reading of the Bible has to deal with what exactly headship adds to oneness/mutual submission.

handerson's picture

I got the impression that the Sumners argument stems from recognizing the inadequacy of current egalitarian theology (in light of Biblical inerrancy) but an unwillingness to embrace traditional complementarian practice. The only solution left to them, then, is to reframe the entire discussion so as to accept the legitimacy of Biblical passages on headship but not the applications derived from them. Hence, a rather novel (and IMHO, inadequate) interpretation of headship.

But, I do appreciate the tension the Sumners are trying to resolve - too often complementarian practice DOES fall prey to caricature and stereotype. I'd love to review the book written from a complementarian perspective that argues how a truly Biblical view of headship must also result in women having roles like Deborah, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Philip's prophesying daughters.

Joseph's picture

Hannah,

Have you read Stackhouse's "Finally Feminist?" It's a really good book; I appreciate Stackhouse's work in general, and Stackhouse's book, based on lectures you can watch online (just google video "John G. Stackhouse") seems to a better job of offering a different paradigm yet still defending a form of egalitarianism. He sees the serious problems in both approaches as they are typically represented. I would encourage you to watch the lectures, as hearing Stackhouse speak helps convey his approach: he's very humble, which is refreshing for this topic.

My wife and I are still complementarian, but we have finally come to the point of honestly being open to the Scriptures even if they say something different (we, like everyone else, would have said we were so open before, but we weren't). We're both very unhappy with most forms of complementarianism we've seen/read, so we're going to start reading the Catholics on gender and sexuality issues (they're far better than us on these topics, incidentally - a very rich tradition of thought).

Thanks for this review.

Aaron Blumer's picture

The spirit of the times is egalitarianism all the way. Being "more open to Scripture" doesn't generally lead toward greater harmony with the accepted views of those who do not have Christ as their Lord. Usually goes the other way.

handerson's picture

@Joseph: I've heard of Stackhouse but not familiar with his work. Have had some exposure to Catholic teaching on gender. Some gems there, but be prepared to have 21st century protestant view of procreation/sexuality turned on its head. (Birth control, what birth control?)

@Aaron: Very true. But we also have to ensure that we are not simply being counter-cultural in the name of being Biblical.

I find egal/comp debate a sticky wicket because it has so many direct applications to our everyday lives. All of Scripture should come to bear on our actions, but gender issues in particular hit very close to (dare I say) home. This is why it's hard for people to be honest with the full body of Scripture. Egalitarians dismiss clear teaching of the epistles, and often we complementarians, downplay the roles of Biblical women who don't fit our current applications.

Sigh... back to the dishes Wink

Anne Sokol's picture

handerson wrote:
The Sumners seem especially burdened that Christian couples move beyond role playing and embrace a truly Christian concept of oneness, the kind of oneness that comes only by spiritual growth.
I like that, too. I think the development of true intimacy in all spheres of marriage is often overlooked, but how essential it is and really, if Christlike intimacy is the focus, so many issues tend to fall away or fall into place.

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