Today I’m writing about something that has been on my mind for the last couple of years. It is the concept of male leadership in marriage, and, in general, the idea of complementarian marriage. For many of you, this seems like a silly idea. That people would espouse such an idea is, I admit, surprising. The fact that I am taking time to write about it is probably even more surprising. But the fact of the matter for me is that until about a year and a half ago, I was a complementarian, and I believed in male leadership in the home. Now, my views on this were fairly mild and really had more to do with hanging on to the way I was raised than anything else. I would like to have seen any man, at any point in my life, try to put his foot down with me. It would not have gone well for him. But, I still held to some sort of symbolic concept of male leadership. I wanted a man who would lead. It was something my friends and I talked about. Something we looked for in guys. Something we felt was necessary for a healthy and godly marriage. I don’t hold to this idea at all these days, thankfully. I have come to see the whole idea as incredibly unhealthy and damaging, and I’m lucky enough to be with a guy who completely agrees with me, and recognizes my perfect equality with him as a person. We don’t have “different roles” on the basis of gender, figuratively or practically. We do play different roles in our relationship from time to time, but it has everything to do with our relative strengths and weaknesses, and nothing to do with our genitalia. We often even laugh about how there are ways in which I take the “man’s role” in our relationship and he fulfills more “female roles”. That’s not to say I’m manly or he’s girly–not that that would be bad, or that that really even means anything–but it’s simply to say that our identities aren’t wrapped up in how we fit a prescribed role for ourselves in our relationship. We just let each other be, and feed off each other’s strength, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with one another in weaknesses, regardless of whether or not those strengths and weaknesses fit predetermined gender norms.
However, not only am I writing this to air some of my own thoughts and grievances about an ideology that I used to hold near and dear (and for that part of this post, I will admit that this is really a type of catharsis for me), but I’m also writing it because I know many, many, many, young men and women who still hold to these ideas. I have had conversation after conversation with men I love and respect who still feel that women should not be permitted to be pastors or to make the final household decisions. I’ve known many, many women who feel that they must marry a man who leads them and acts as somewhat of an authority figure in their relationship. Some of these women even express frustration at the fact that their significant others are not doing this sufficiently. So, I wanted to share my thoughts on why I do not feel that male headship and complementarianism make for healthy relationships, and why I believe couples should abandon it and choose instead to have relationships that are tailored to their unique needs and personalities.
Firstly, I would like to deal with the biblical side of things. Consider, if you will, the vast cultural differences between the Old Testament and the New. Consider the fact that laws changed over time as the culture shifted, and that oftentimes, as Jesus himself pointed out (Matt 19:7-8), rules reflected the need to control people’s violations of God’s ultimate plans–not God’s ultimate plans themselves. Complementarians like to point to the opening of Genesis to show that God designed women to be under the authority of man. There is man, and then there is his “helpmeet”, woman. See, she isn’t in charge, she is the “helper” of the one in charge. To interpret the Hebrew here in Genesis as promoting a male over female hierarchy is to completely butcher the original text and imply things it simply does not imply. In English, the idea of a “helper” is thought of as an underling. There is no such implication in the Hebrew word ezer, which we translate as “helper” or “helpmeet”. The word actually implies the idea of an individual of greater strength lending aid or succor to an individual of lesser strength. It appears repeatedly in describing God’s relationship to Israel. God is called Israel’s “helpmeet”. God is Israel’s ezer. However, the text doesn’t stop there, lest we now think that the opening of Genesis implies that women are superior to men. The context of this passage clearly implies equality. Adam was looking for a suitable partner. There were none. Then appears Eve. She is not better than, and she is not less than. She is not his “helper” or assistant, she is his partner. Everything about the text here implies equality. It isn’t until “the curse” that we see the implication of oppression for the woman, and even then, it has nothing to do with a deficit on her part, or some kind of prescription for the way things should be, it is describing what will now be wrong with the world. Why Evangelicals persist in quoting and upholding what God thought would now be wrong with reality as a prescription for how things should be is beyond me. You would think that since they believe Jesus came to set us free from the curse they would now be all about equality.
So, I have dealt a little bit with Genesis to set the stage, if you will. Of course, most people who espouse complementarianism will argue that there are many verses in the New Testament which further support their views. I would just like to say a few things.
1) You, or your wife/significant other don’t wear a head covering while praying or prophesying, so I don’t care about your exegesis of I Corinthians 11, since you are obviously picking and choosing.
2) You pick and choose all of the other ones as well. 1 Timothy 2:12 tells you that you don’t allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man. Setting aside the fact that we don’t even know who wrote this (probably not Paul), so we don’t know why what they say matters, what perspective they were likely coming from, and a host of other textual issues, there is the simple fact that this is a very, very far-reaching statement that everyone interprets on the basis of what feels comfortable to him or her, or what they have already been taught to believe about it. Most of you are ok with women teaching men as long as she has a male authority figure over her (a senior pastor, or her husband, for example), but that is clearly forbidden by the text. Why don’t you follow through?
3) At the end of the day, the marriages at this time bear almost no resemblance to modern marriage, and the society from which they arose was so hopelessly patriarchal that many of the passages that complementarians quote now to defend male leadership would have sounded (and were probably supposed to sound) downright egalitarian to its original hearers. The bottom line is this: today, women have property rights, voting rights, educational rights, financial opportunities, and the ability to support themselves. This was true of probably less than 1 percent of all women at the time that these “proof texts” were written. It makes perfect sense that women should, in general, submit to their husbands and respect them when these “women” were likely 14-16 years old girls who were uneducated and had no practical knowledge of the world outside of their kitchens, while their husbands were 10-30 years their seniors with business experience and, in the Jewish community, a religious education (which was forbidden women). I think the principle here is if you are forced to marry someone by your culture and family (both of which would be inescapable for you), then there are some basic principles for making that marriage work, one of which is to have respect for the person who just simply knows more than you and has more life experience. The flip-side of these scriptures, the male side, also makes perfect sense in the light of this cultural perspective. If your wife is uneducated, and if your culture teaches you to regard women as property (we’re talking about the intersection of three of the most misogynistic cultures in history, after all), then telling you to love your wife as yourself and care for her as you care for your own body will not sound like the establishment of a hierarchy to you, but probably more like the opposite. The fact of the matter is, most of these scriptures meant, culturally speaking, the opposite for them back then as they would for us today. They are definitely subject to cultural and social analysis, and, if I may be so bold, are completely culturally irrelevant today. If Paul were giving marriage advice today it would probably be about balancing work schedules, respecting each other, and how to choose a spouse on the basis of shared interests, and since all of those things would have been out of the picture back when he was actually writing, we can’t consider the absence of his comments on such things as the condemnation of mutuality in a relationship. Mutuality would have simply been viewed as relatively ridiculous and largely irrelevant/impossible.
4) Jesus. That’s it. Just Jesus. Jesus had absolutely nothing to say regarding the hierarchy of men over women, and he went out of his way to elevate women to equal status. I think that says it all. After all, it’s Christianity, not Paulianity, or Anonymous-epistle-writerianity.
Ok, so, whether or not you liked my handling of scripture, I think if you delve deeply enough into the other side, you will find that the ideas about gender roles in scriptures are not as easy to defend as you may think, and probably have more to do with what you have been taught/traditional church culture than anything else. But, I would like to move on. There are some points I would like to make about this marriage/relationship model on the basis of practical considerations and reason.
What this model gets right about relationships is that selflessness is central to building happy, healthy ones. What it gets wrong is that it then prescribes a narrow space in which people may act “selflessly” based on their biology. It is true that a marriage/relationship is about sacrificing for the other. It’s about giving your all and learning to let go of your own needs and preferences from time to time so that your spouse can thrive. If your spouse is doing the same thing for you, you will have a healthy marriage that will stand the test of time. If it’s one-sided…let’s not even go there. That’s my nightmare. If neither of you are doing it, I can almost promise your relationship won’t last. Relationships are supposed to be based on empathy and seeking the good of the other. We can all agree on that. Where complementarians get it wrong is that they try to create a mold in which this mutual empathy and sacrifice is supposed to happen. The whole point of being selfless and loving someone is that you are putting them first, and that will look completely and utterly different for different couples. Some couples will look like a typical complementarian couple. The wife may be more happy with domestic life. She might not like being in charge. She might like it when her husband is in charge of big decisions, and allows her the time and space to do things that matter more to her, like have lots of babies and baking bread, and whatever else she likes to do. There is nothing wrong with this, provided that both parties are listening to one another, that they have agreed in advance that they accept one another for their personal differences and are willing to build a life together that makes the most of their varying strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, however, there is nothing wrong with a wife who works full time and makes all the financial decisions because her husband feels he is better suited to nurturing children and making meals and organizing play dates. Some dads love that, and some moms could think of nothing worse. There is nothing wrong with organizing a marriage to fit their respective personality differences and create a home that plays to everyone’s strengths!
Then, there are couples like Sam and me. I definitely have a strong personality, I like things a certain way, I’m generally pretty good at voicing my opinion, etc. Sam, as anyone who knows him will tell you, is neither authoritarian nor a pushover. He is very laid back, but he is not passive. I don’t like people doing what I say or letting me run the show anymore than I like other people trying it with me! We are both “alpha” people and we are both “beta” people. That is, in different ways we each take charge and in different ways we sit back and let the other lead. We aren’t vying for control of the relationship (as some complementarians would lead you to believe will happen in a relationship without explicit male headship). We work together, make compromises, and try to sacrifice for the other. Sometimes I get to make the final decision, sometimes it’s Sam. The point is, we don’t make the decision on the basis of who has a penis. Which brings me to another thing
Complementarianism is not about equality. What does it mean for something to be unjustly inequitable? Arguably, it means people are not allowed to do something on the basis of something that they had no choice in (usually something about their biological identity such as skin color, gender, hair color, ethnicity, you name it), and are still equally equipped to do. There has yet to be offered a reasonable argument that shows women to be somehow less equipped than men for anything when it comes to leadership both publicly and relationally. Nobody will deny that men and women have biological differences, but you cannot marshal biological differences in the service of proving non-biological differences. For example, people say, “Hey! I’m a man, I can’t have a baby, so there things I can’t do that a woman can, and I’m not complaining about inequality” as an argument for why women being barred from leadership, or being placed under hierarchy does not lead to inequality (yes, I have heard this argument). Obviously, that is ridiculous. They are comparing specifically biological differences that neither party has control over with very specifically social roles that both parties are totally equal to. Then there is the whole idea that men just think differently, are more aggressive, take more risks, and blah blah blah, and that all of those things somehow make them uniquely equipped to be placed over women in a leadership functions. Ignoring the glaringly obvious fact that those characteristics are largely socially constructed symptoms of patriarchy–not some essential “maleness” dictated to all males from time immemorial–there is the simple fact that none of those characteristics are, of necessity, leadership characteristics. Some leaders lead that way, others take a completely different approach. How many of us have known really aggressive, rationalistic, risk-taking female leaders, and really gentle, nurturing, and supportive male leaders (you can’t see it but I’m raising my hands up really high). And there is nothing necessarily wrong with either style, as long as both parties are listening to those around them and are capable of acting with selflessness and empathy.
In the end, here is my spiel: Stop organizing your marriage on the basis of what others tell you it should be organized according to. Your vagina no more determines your personality than does your weight, or your eye color, or your skin color. It is a fact of your biology. You may be affected by it, but it isn’t who you are. If you are a woman, you don’t automatically have to subscribe to a submissive wife role. If you are a man, you don’t automatically have to subscribe the “leadership” position. You can both figure out for yourselves who you are and then find a partner who fits that. Build a beautiful relationship together building up each other’s strengths and carrying one another through each other’s weaknesses. Complementarianism leads to strife, pain, and frustration in relationships that don’t fit the mold it offers because both parties are either trying to change themselves or one another, and spending enormous amounts of energy in doing so that they could just be spending on getting to know and love one another in a healthy and functional way. There is nothing “wrong” with being a strong woman, and there is nothing “wrong” with being a mild man. Just find the person who likes you for you and learn how to coexist lovingly, empathetically, and self-sacrificially with one another and you won’t need the rest. I was frustrated for years, worrying about finding a man who would “lead” me when it seemed I wasn’t very “leadable”. Now I’m not frustrated. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do. But I do want someone’s love, council, and patience. I can humbly submit myself to someone like that, as long as they are okay with likewise humbly submitting themselves to me. Relationships are complicated enough. We don’t need to add the prescribed gender norms of John Piper or Mark Driscoll to the mix. I’m not saying don’t take marriage advice. I’m saying don’t let people you don’t even know tell you or your spouse what’s right or wrong with your marriage when they aren’t even willing to acknowledge what makes you both unique and different–viz., your personalities and giftings, not your genitalia.