Religion is often seen as one of the most divisive social forces that exist, but it can also be seen as psychological framework which drives people to do good. I do not view religion as neither good nor bad, but merely as a tool for which various social groups interpret and argue for a specific understanding of the world. The three major Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are so ingrained into most of the world’s cultures that it is impossible to deny their influence on our global society. Religion is a broad category of thoughts, beliefs, and customs which shape and influence the social identity of millions of people across the planet. Because of this fact, it is often difficult to assess certain arguments apart from their religious framework. As a result, different (and often contradictory) arguments for how to approach various social topics emerge. One topic of interest that religion undoubtedly played a crucial role in influencing social attitudes is the topic of marriage. Marriage has been defined by most of the world religions as a union between a man and a woman, often for the purpose of making official a legal contract between two individuals sanctioned before God or often for the purpose of bearing children. Often times this kind of framework in approaching marriage is useful in helping to strengthen social bonds. Other times it can cause unintended stigma for specific people if they don’t necessarily fit in a “proper” social or religious paradigm. When there are different religious frameworks, there are different rhetorics, many of which that can either develop healthy social attitudes about marriage or harmful social attitudes about marriage. Recently, I came across an articled titled “10 Women Christian Men Should Not Marry” in my News Feed on Facebook which I found to be of particular interest (as well as concern, but more on that later).
This article by Dr. Stephen Kim, the founding pastor of Mustard Seed Church of New York City (who I will admit I never heard of prior to encounter this blog), caught my attention, not just for its blatantly obvious sexism against women (as well as against men in his companion article), but also for its religious fundamentalist rhetoric which pushes for the social stigmas about marriage that goes beyond even mainstream Christian thought. While I certainly have my opinions as to what religious beliefs have more merit than others, for the purpose of attempting objectivity I will not mention what my religious (or lack of religious) views are because I do not believe my beliefs have any relevance to the arguments I am presenting here.
Coming across Dr. Kim’s article, I was immediately struck by the blatant sexism present in his descriptions many of the types of women he advocates Christian men should not even consider for marriage. What I mean by this observation is that examining the details he provides of the various type of women he argues are unfit for marriage, it becomes clear from a perspective outside of Dr. Kim’s religious tradition that his portrayal of women comes off as both judgmental and simplistic, as well as describing types of women as supposedly not ideal for the Christian man. In both articles on marriage, Dr. Kim attempts to prescribe for both men and women each respective sex is to avoid for marriage. While both lists are similar, I will mainly focus on the list for women because how the social stigmas present in this list are noticeable interest to me. I want to make it clear that the purpose of my critique is not to criticize the Christian conception of marriage, but to criticize a form of rhetoric within Dr. Kim’s religious framework about marriage I found to be particularly harmful to both men and women.
To get an idea as to why Dr. Kim’s articles are marriage harm both men and women, it will help to provide a brief comparison between the two articles. Many of the type of spouses Dr. Kim describes as unsuitable for marriage are similar, such as the Unbeliever and the Divorcee. These two specific types of potential spouses, Dr. Kim argues, are unsuitable for marriage because of how “contradictory” they are to Christian doctrine. While true that orthodox Christian theology discourages marriage between the believer and the unbeliever (the famous 2 Corinthians 6:14 comes to mind), Dr. Kim’s reasoning stems from a type of Calvinist Protestant theology that informs his entire view of marriage. To understand this framework better, it helps to first examine the way Dr. Kim describes “the Unbeliever”:
1. The Unbeliever. Scripture is replete with exhortations against such marriages (in both the Old and New Testaments). Contrary to popular misconception, God’s prohibition against marriages to foreign women in the Old Testament was not due to racism. Instead, God was simply preventing the spread of idolatry. Israel, God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, represented what Christians would later represent in the New Testament. Hence, God’s prohibition against marrying an unbelieving woman in the New Testament (2 Cor 6:14) is simply the extension of God prohibiting a Hebrew man from from marrying a Canaanite woman in the Old Testament (Deut 7:3-4). “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you” (Deut 7:3-4).
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Notice here the way Dr. Kim describes the “unbeliever” as not just different from the believer, but that God’s exhortation against the marriage between a believer and an unbeliever is an extension of the the laws of the Old Testament where God forbade the Israelites from marrying a Canaanite spouse. In other words, to marry an unbeliever (who today would be considered a non-Christian, but also who Dr. Kim would refer to either atheists or agnostics) would be equivalent to marrying a heathen! Dr. Kim has already a created a binary between the believer and the unbeliever in regards to marriage, which serves as a framework he uses to prescribe the kind of Christian woman that Christian men ought to avoid. To marry an unbeliever would be to dabble in matrimony which violates God’s ideal, but Dr. Kim frames this as an issue of avoiding idolatry, as well as an extension of upholding God’s ideal, in order to influence his intended audience. In addition, we also notice the way Dr. Kim places an evangelistic tract right at the end of his brief paragraph about the unbeliever. Ignoring for a moment that Dr. Kim’s articles on marriage are catering to a specific type of Christian audience, his choice to include this tract at the end raises questions regarding what assumptions Dr. Kim as a rhetor has about his intended audience. By including this minor detail with a link to instructions on how to “become a Christian,” Dr. Kim has crafted a type of rhetoric that is designed to not only persuade his intended audience to avoid certain types of potential spouses for marriage, but to also affirm a type of Christian identity that correlates to strongly conservative Calvinist Protestant values.
Of course, it is possible to have different theological views on the matter. We could argue back and forth all day about biblical hermeneutics and what is supposedly correct doctrine, but that would be beyond the scope of this post. There are various interpretations of the Biblical scripture which challenge or qualify Dr. Kim’s theological arguments, many of which that comes from the Catholic or Orthodox traditions within Christendom as well as other forms of mainline Protestant denominations. However, the point is not argue for alternative interpretations of these same scripture passages that Dr. Kim pulls left and right to support her arguments regarding marriage; the point is to point out the implications of what Dr. Kim’s rhetoric on marriage has on the relationship between men and women.
In examining the similarities and differences between his two articles, we notice an obvious social divide between men and women has created in order for his arguments to have any effect. Biologically men and women are different, but Dr. Kim’s rely on creating a divide between men and women within his own Christian tradition that enforces a social attitude about marriage that I would argue goes beyond simple religious traditions about gender roles. Dr. Kim’s arguments also are framed as a type of propaganda for sexism which even Dr. Kim himself may not realize. It is important to realize that there is a difference between having distinct gender roles advocated by a religion versus formulating a rhetoric of marriage which not only creates specific social stigmas about certain types of women, but also creates (or at least attempts to create) social attitudes about marriage that harm the relationship between men and women.
To support this observations, it should be helpful to examine the way Dr. Kim frames what roles men and women take in relationships. In his article geared toward women, Dr. Kim describes the type of man that a woman ideally should not marry, listing various types of male archetypes such as The Liar, The Narcissist, the Idle, The Angry Man, and (most interestingly) what he calls he Un-Evangelist; these are character types which do not appear on the list of women men should not marry, despite the fact that most of these are character traits that should be avoided, regardless of gender. In his description of the Un-Evangelist, Dr. Kim describes this type of man as the following:
If the man says that he believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ–meaning that there is 1. a literal hell awaiting unbelievers, 2. grace and pardon available to all who put their faith in Jesus–but he simultaneously does NOT evangelize…does he really believe? Does he really love God? Does he really love people? Will he ever love you the way Christ loved and died for His Church (when evidently, he’s too ashamed to even proclaim the death of Christ)
Dr. Kim is arguing that this type of man is not suitable for marriage because his choice not to evangelize makes him no different from an unbeliever. The man is supposed to be the head of the marriage and has a duty to evangelize to others, otherwise he is not a “true believer.” Faith and works within Dr. Kim’s religious tradition are viewed as necessarily intertwined with one another, meaning that works (i.e. evangelizing) are supposed to be “the fruit of your faith,” and if the fruit is not present you do not have real faith at all.
This is problematic enough from an orthodox Christian perspective, but this only adds to the problem with Dr. Kim’s rhetoric when we examine his list of the 10 Women Christian Men Should Not Marry. We notice that many of the type of men listed are surprisingly absent. In other words, many of the types of men Dr. Kim describes as unsuitable for marriage are not gender specific at all! If we were to simplify this list to the types of spouses that are non-gender specific, Dr. Kim’s list would look something like this:
The Angry Man [or woman]
The Career Woman [or man]
The Devotion-less Woman [or man]
Take a look at this list carefully. You will notice that the personality types present here are not by any means gender specific; all you need to do is switch the genders of these types of unsuitable spouses and nothing would change. What makes a man unsuitable for marriage, according to Dr. Kim, should logically be character traits which make women unsuitable for marriage as well. However, these negative character traits are only present when describing unsuitable male spouses! Why is this observation significant? The reason why this observation is significant is because by including list of unsuitable male spouses with traits that are not gender specific, it creates a type of rhetoric which informs a social attitude about the relationship between men and women which discourages a more robust or humane equality between husband and wife.
This is a strong claim, but it helps to understand the rhetorical implication framing these lists has on Dr. Kim’s audience. The most obvious implication of Dr. Kim’s rhetorical choices here is that is creates a type of idea of marriage that conforms to his Calvinist theological framework. Men are the heads of the household while wives are to submit to their husbands. No where is this more obvious when Dr. Kim describes the older woman as an unsuitable spouse:
Not a sin, but certainly not God’s ideal. God expects men to be the spiritual leaders of the home (Eph 5:25) and it certainly requires an extra measure of grace to lead a woman who’s older than you. Again, if you’re a man and you’re already in such a marriage, then honor it till the day you die–it’s still a valid marriage and divorce is not an option! However, if you’re not yet married but thinking about an older woman I want to remind you that God intentionally (with good reason!) created Adam before Eve in the First Marriage. Scripture informs us that God created man first chronologically for the sake of authority! Listen: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:12-13).
In my years in studying Christian theology, I’ve rarely (if at all) encountered a pastor, a priest, or a theologian who argued that spouses are to literally be younger in age to their husbands. Ignoring for a moment that no where in the Bible is this even implied (let alone taught) that God’s ideal is for the woman to be younger in age to their husbands, this theological rhetoric implies a type of sexism against women that goes beyond mere traditional gender roles in the church. It doesn’t just imply that men and women have different roles in the marriage (just like how men and women have different roles in the church); it implies a type of a dominance/submission relationship in a marriage that is both symbolic and literal! To further support this claim, let’s take look at the description of the career woman Dr. Kim provides an example of a woman unsuitable for marriage:
Now, I want to clarify something here. There is nothing wrong with a woman who works (Acts 16:14), what’s wrong is a woman who puts her career ahead of her family. Modern American society might hate to hear this, but God made men to be the providers and women to be the nurturers of the home (in most instances). It’s okay for a woman to be a doctor, attorney, or any other professional. However, if her career is coming at the expense of her home, then something is wrong. If day-care is raising her young children while she’s working, then something is wrong. I understand that there might be a season of life where the wife might have to be the main bread-winner due to her husband’s unemployment, but it should not be the desired norm. The woman ought to be willing (and even desirous–to some extent) to give up her job for the sake of raising her kids in the Lord. “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander” (1 Tim 5:14).
The implications of this rhetoric is that on the one hand it wants to argue that women should be allowed to work, but also argue at the same time that being a career woman is problematic for the marriage. According to Dr. Kim, if you are a career woman, the ideal for you when it comes to marriage is for you to give up your career so you put all your focus in “raising [your children] for the Lord.” Dr. Kim mades this rhetoric palpable for his audience by trying to emphasize that being a career [person] is not wrong, but that it is not ideal. However, the problem with this approach is that it creates a type of propaganda which argues that women who work to provide for the family are going against God’s ideal and thus should be willing to give up their careers in order to better conform to God’s ideal. This does not mean that women should not be be stay at home mothers if that is something they want to do. It also does not mean that women should not have the freedom to follow what is often called traditional gender roles in their marriages with their husbands. However, Dr. Kim’s rhetoric here creates the strong implication that to go against this ideal form of marriage between the husband and the wife would be to go against God’s values, which in turn unfortunately works as a type of propaganda tool most likely influence his intended audience to adopt a dominant/submissive view of marriage, rather than a view of marriage which encourages equal partnership between both husband and wife that adopts traditional gender roles as taught by classical Christianity for hundreds of years.
There are numerous examples present in Dr. Kim’s rhetoric I could point that showcase the sexism present in his lists of men and women unsuitable for marriage which creates social attitudes about marriage which conform to his Calvinist Theological framework, but I will invite you to take a look at both lists for yourself and be the judge. For some feminists, Dr. Kim’s descriptions of these women would be described as patriarchal or misogynist. Because of how huge of a spectrum feminist theory is a whole, I will not dive into all the different aspects of feminist thought except to mention that Feminism at its core has advocated for more equal treatment between men and women. This would also imply that Feminism (even classical Feminism) encouraged both men and women to have more autonomy in their relationships and encouraging equal partnerships. Feminism understood in this light would not be in contrast to a classical Christian thought when it comes to the traditional gender roles in marriage. Men would still be the spiritual leaders of the marriage, but women would be the archetype of the Church who helps the man lead the marriage to success. Both the man and the woman would be working together, side by side, in making the marriage work. This would not be a dominant/submissive relationship that Dr. Kim’s rhetoric suggests, but one of equal partnership that almost paradoxically allows for both men and women to still fulfill what is considered traditional gender roles if they so choose to.
However, Dr. Kim’s rhetoric on marriage is not merely about advocating for traditional gender roles in the marriage, but advocating for a dominance/submissive form of marriage that ironically denies the autonomy of women to freely to choose to follow traditional gender roles. What this implies is that Dr. Kim’s rhetoric creates a type of attitude about marriage that influences how people in his Christian circles are to view the relationship between men and women that is potentially harmful to both sexes. The rhetoric has created a type of stigma that will cause many people, both men and women, to accept the social attitudes Dr. Kim advocates that they may not necessarily realize is harmful. When we go back and examine the way he frames both of his lists of unsuitable spouses, it becomes clear that Dr. Kim view on marriage is attempting to push a social stigma about women who don’t fit his specific ideal of marriage. As a result, the rhetoric creates a form of sexism about what is supposed to be the role of women in marriages. Other than unbeliever, if you are a woman who fit any of the descriptions Dr. Kim’s descriptions, not only are you not a suitable spouse but that you must give up any potential benefits you have (such as having a career for example) in order be the wife that would suit the “ideal form of marriage.” In other words, rather than seeing the relationship between the man and woman as an equal partnership, it becomes an a dominant/submissive relationship where double standards between the man and woman in the marriage become incredibly obvious. The type of men described as unsuitable for marriage are made clear by Dr. Kim, but even half of these personality types (as already pointed out) are not gender specific and thus makes Dr. Kim’s suggestions vacuous and hypocritical. What would be unsuitable traits in a potential husband would just be unsuitable in a wife.
I no doubt will get objections from most people who will argue that Dr. Kim’s arguments are based on the Bible or so called sound theology. Men are supposed to the spiritual leaders of the marriage and women are supposed to be nurturers, according to Dr. Kim’s theology. I personally am not interested in arguing against any of the Bible verses Dr. Kim has provided to support his views because I’ve come to believe that anyone can use the Bible to argue for any position they want, no matter how morally objectionable they may be. I am more interested in pointing out the implications Dr. Kim’s theological rhetoric has not just on his intended audience, but also anyone who has a view of marriage which lacks an understanding of the necessity of equal partnership between men and women. It is the rhetoric present in Dr. Kim’s articles that concern me for reasons already stated, not advocating for traditional gender roles in marriage. Advocating for traditional gender roles is the least of my concerns when it comes to look at the rhetorical implications of Dr. Kim’s articles on unsuitable spouses for marriage. To make the point clear again, Dr. Kim’s articles don’t just advocate for traditional gender roles in marriage (not the problem here). Dr. Kim’s articles advocate for a social attitude about marriage which serve as a type of propaganda for sexism that undermines the partnership in marriage to the point where it creates a double standard between men and women that hurts both sexes (which is the problem here).
Many forms of Classical Christianity (particularly in the Catholic and Orthodox Traditions) have viewed marriage as being an equal partnership between men and women, while still maintaining traditional gender roles. Even looking at both the Old and New Testament, we see examples of strong women in the Bible who help push forward the idea that Christianity as a religion does not advocate for a dominant/submissive view of marriage as Dr. Kim’s rhetoric wants to us to believe. Before advocating for traditional gender roles in marriage, perhaps it would be more prudent to make sure that your arguments for what types of spouses would be suitable for marriage not only don’t create a form of social sexism about how women are to behave in marriage, but to also make sure your rhetoric does not (intentionally or unintentionally) create double standards about how men and women are supposed to behave in marriage in a way that harms both sexes.
In the meantime, I think Dr. Kim would benefit from reading more of Ephesians since that is where it appears he is getting his New Testament theology from in regards to marriage:
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
– Ephesians 5:25-33
10 Women Christian Men Should Not Marry:
10 Men Christian Women Should Not Marry: