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A Tanzanian critique of Tanzanian marriage

One of Arthur’s colleagues, Eliud is getting married to former TAFES staff member Dorothea next month and he and Arthur have been talking about marriage, specifically, the Christian ideal of unity in marriage.

Eliud and Doro have been thinking very carefully about the cultural views they have inherited and whether they are biblical – even though they are spoken of in biblical language.

Here is what Eliud considers standard Tanzanian reasons for resisting unity in marriage. Further down are his own conclusions.

Standard Tanzanian responses for resisting unity in marriage:

1. What happened to Eve, it goes for all women. They are changeable. E.g. you make an agreement but they can change any time. Note that this argument is not that women are more evil or more immoral than men, but that they are more equivocal or perhaps neurotic. Don’t pursue unity with your wife because she is not dependable.

2. Women have a convincing power to convince men, like Delilah, to go against their own plans or even to go against God. You can’t trust a woman. This has resonances with the western argument that women are by nature manipulators and manipulate others to get their way. Don’t pursue unity with your wife because she will end up controlling you.

3. Ephesians 5 is ubiquitous in wedding preaching, but its meaning is culturally defined, to mean that the husband is the final authority in everything, and he can decide whatever he wants with no discussion, and the role of the wife is to submit, to say yes, no questioning. Eliud says African culture is a kingship culture — no democracy. Little attention is given to headship being equated with service and self-sacrifice, or the context of mutual submission.

4. The weaker vessel 1 Peter 3:7 the Swahili is “kaeni na wake zenu kwa akili” — i.e. men, be smart/savvy with your wives, i.e. don’t be fooled by them. Weaker vessel is less about physical weakness of some kind and more about their changeability, again, like Eve, so you don’t want to go along with that and end up in disaster as Adam did.


Eliud and Dorothea believe these reasons to be Tanzanians reading their culture onto the Bible, and that transformation of these views is necessary. They have been pursuing a different model, one which takes the “one flesh” of the Bible’s marriage theology and sees it as more than physicality: Christian marriage is about oneness and unity.

There are a number of influences that have shaped their views, some Tanzanian influences, some foreign. They have been shaped by people they know, preachers they have heard, and books they have read. They are meeting with an older TAFES couple for marriage counselling as well. And in TAFES they have learned to weigh up what they hear, and to read the Bible for themselves with a heart ready for the Spirit to change them.

So, to the above Tanzanian reasons for resisting unity in marriage, these Tanzanians say:

1. & 2. There are more examples from the Bible of women who did well than didn’t, and many men who went wrong badly. Deborah is a leader and mother in Israel. The Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4 shows remarkable single-mindedness. The Proverbs 31 wife is trusted by her husband. Abigail shows herself to be wise where Nabal was a fool and David a hothead. The faithfulness of the women around Jesus contrasts with the flightiness of the disciples. The New Testament letters are littered with references to women who are Paul’s co-workers.

3. Ephesians 5 submission ≠ following in everything, and head ≠ sole arbiter in all things. For Eliud and Dorothea, it is the language of love in the passage which shapes them. They receive one another in love and offer themselves to one another in love. There is democratic space in their marriage, where each ones has a chance to give their mind before reaching any conclusion. On a practical level, Eliud is generally leading and she is following, but not in a black and white one dimensional way.

4. Weaker vessel must be put together with woman as helper. And a helper is strong, stronger than you. So weaker vessel ≠ unable to do anything or be trusted and men must decide everything. The point of 1 Pet 3:7 is about living with your wife in an understanding way. Learn who she is. If you come to understand someone, it is easy to work with them. And they believe that they each need to understand the other — then the point of weakness will not be there.

Two questions yet remaining to ask Eliud are:

  • Where do you get the confidence to say that the standard Tanzanian readings of the Bible are too culturally beholden?
  • Since your theology of marriage is so different, to what extent can it be called Tanzanian?

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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