Shane, a podcast listener, emails in to ask, “Pastor John, is there any truth about roles in marriage given in Scripture that would encourage the tradition of a wife taking her husband’s last name in marriage? Stated in a different way, based on your knowledge of the Bible and its revealed truth about marriage, would you encourage or discourage a woman to keep her last name in marriage? And why or why not?”
Okay, let me first give you my viewpoint — my conviction — and then try to put some foundation under it. I would encourage, in our culture especially, a woman to take her husband’s last name. And if she wants to give special honor to her given name — to her family of origin — she can make it her legal middle name so that every time she signs her whole legal name, she includes her given name.
Three Reasons: Take the Name
That would be my encouragement to any woman who asked me or any man or a couple who were pondering what to do in marriage. And here are my reasons. I have got a cultural reason, a practical reason, and a biblical reason.
1. Taking the name is a longstanding cultural practice.
Culturally, that is the way it has been done in the West for a long time. And to push against it usually signals a resistance to something good, namely that the man — and this is what is good — bears a special burden of responsibility and accountability for leadership and provision and protection in this relationship. And I think giving the family his name signifies that.
I am aware that other cultures may handle naming in different ways; I don’t know enough to pass judgment on those cultures, but I would guess that the custom in the West has its roots in biblical reality even if it has been forgotten. Culture is not absolute, and our culture and others all are in need at various points of change for the sake of God’s truth. So, my guess is it is a good thing and a biblical thing that the West has, over time, taken on this particular pattern of naming. That is my cultural argument.
2. Taking the name eliminates practical difficulties.
Second, practically in our culture, it creates difficulties over the long haul for children if the mother and the father have different names or a hyphenated name. It is culturally confusing to explain, and it makes the naming of the children and the grandchildren unworkable in the long run. If Noёl and I had taken the name “Piper-Henry” (her last name was Henry, my last name is Piper) — so if we called our children Karsten Piper-Henry and Benjamin Piper-Henry and Abraham Piper-Henry and Barnabas Piper-Henry and Talitha Piper-Henry — and all of our children were Piper-Henrys, what happens when they marry? And let’s just say one of the boys marries a woman whose last name is Smith-Jones and they want hyphenated names. Suppose they named their first child after me. John Piper-Henry-Smith-Jones. Well, sooner or later, that just becomes unworkable, and you have to make choices somehow. It is just not very practical to try to go another route other than the traditional.
3. Taking the name signifies a husband’s special responsibility.
But neither of those arguments is compelling apart from something more substantial. And so here is my word from Scripture: I think generally the Bible calls the husband to be, if he is physically able, the one who bears the special responsibility for leadership, provision, and protection. And each one of those words is chosen very carefully, and I have written a whole book on what I mean by every one of them. The book is called What is the Difference?. The difference is a special responsibility for leadership, provision, and protection.
Ephesians 5: Leadership, Provision, and Protection
And I based this on Ephesians 5:22–23: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head” — that is where I get leadership and initiative from — “of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” So the husband is not a christ in the full sense, but he is a christ in a mini sense for his wife in that he saves her from any danger that is encroaching on her. He feels a special responsibility: “I protect this family like Jesus has protected his church.”
And then Paul continues: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:24–25). So now we know this responsibility for leadership and provision is costly. Many men have lost their lives to protect their wives, to provide for their wives. And they should. Husbands should love their wives, Paul says, as their own bodies.
And then he comes to this third piece: “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (5:28–29). Now we have the third piece of provision and nourishing.
So, leadership and protection and provision in Ephesians 5 — husbands are to be like Christ in leading, rescuing from danger, and nourishing with what the church needs and what their wives need. And this is not thought of as a right or a privilege. It is thought of as a responsibility and a burden — a very costly burden. Many men have lost their lives fulfilling this role. It is especially appointed because God has this man there as an agent of his own care and provision and authority for his family. And the name over that family is very suitably the leader’s name. That just makes so much sense if you buy the biblical vision of manhood and womanhood.
Genesis 5: “Man” or “Adam”
One more thing. There is, I believe, a more specific illustration of how that works out in Genesis 5:1–3 where it says this: “This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man — Adam (man and Adam are the same) — he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them [Adam],”— he named them “Man.” Now, some people translate it “man” and they will say, “So it really doesn’t mean that he gave them the man’s name.” But think about it. He gave them the generic name “man” just like he gave the whole race the generic name “man.” And there is another word for woman.
Look at verse 3: “When Adam . . .” This is why I think that the personal name is meant in verse 2, so I am going to read verses 2 and 3 together again: “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them [Adam] when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years” — so he is not talking about man in general here; he is talking about the specific Adam that he had in mind in verse 2 — “he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image” and so on. So the generic name for the man and the woman was “man” or “Adam.” The generic name was not “woman.” It could have been, but God didn’t do it that way. And then God called the first man to distinguish him from the other men. And so he is called “Adam” over, say, “Noah.”
So it seems to me that God gave us this pointer toward the naming of our families. Both man and woman are created in the image of God, but the man bears a special responsibility before God for this union. And that is signified with putting his name on the banner that flies over the family.