When it comes to Christian marriage, apparently you can only belong to one of two camps these days – egalitarian, or complementarian. An egalitarian marriage is loosely defined as one one where both parties share equal rights and responsibilities, have equal say on decision making and perhaps even equally divide time and energy given to paid or domestic work. A complementarian marriage is the more traditional model, where a man is considered the “leader” by virtue of his gender and the woman is subject to his overarching authority by virtue of hers, which could mean all kinds of things domestically and politically.
Debate amongst Christians about which model more accurately reflects Biblical principles for married men and women is active again thanks to books such as Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll’s recently released handbook on how to wrangle yourself a good, charismatic, churchy-type marriage. Ideas such as Driscoll’s seem to spring from the hope that if women in church would just sit down, shut up and stop trying to be the boss of everything, the planets would align, Christian couples would stop divorcing and giving God a bad reputation, and everyone in Christendom would prosper and be happy. Misogynist Bible teachers throughout the ages would certainly be ratified in their particular Bible interpretations. If only we would do it – we meaning the rascally, rebellious women, and it meaning submit to the gender-assigned, irrevocable authority over us of all the ones with the penises.
Why won’t we do it?
Now, I think it’s safe to say we all want the same thing, but the we I’m talking about now is all the married men and women in church. We all want to stay married. We all want the church to prosper and remain relevant in our communities, and in our present society and culture. We all also want to have enough money to pay our bills and all be great parents to our kids. We do all want this, and we all are going to do whatever we have to do to make it all work out.
So we’ve established that we’re on the same page where what we want is concerned, however the scope and variance of the individuals included in this sociological vision are as many as the stars in the sky. It’s not just generic men and generic women. It’s strong men. Strong women. Deep thinking men. Passive women. Contentious, bossy men. Abused, cowering women. Nurturing, pastoral men. Nurturing, pastoral women. Single, ambitious men. Single, ambitious women. Fatherly, steadfast men. Motherly, faithful women. And the list goes on.
So given this diversity, why is there such a cookie-cutter approach to marriage and family in the contemporary church?
I think one reason we are seeing such a polarisation between egalitarianism and complementarianism is that, in search of the marriage that will please God the most, people have stopped listening to the people they are married to and started listening to their church leaders. And strangely despite this diversity amongst people generally, it seems that when it comes to the most vocal, complementarianistic church leaders, we often end up with just one particular type of person in charge, just one kind of person telling is how it all ought be be in a perfect, Christian world.
The strong, charismatic, opinionated, white, middle-aged, heterosexual male.
The strong, charismatic, opinionated male who needs to be that way because he is leading a congregation of several/several hundred/several thousand people. The white, middle-aged, heterosexual male who, in order to do his job well, needs to be supported and complemented by a certain kind of supporter. So he marries one. Or else the person he happens to be married to cleverly works out what is required for this particular marriage to succeed, for the mortgage to keep being paid, the children to be nurtured, the needs to be met and the ordination to be fulfilled, so she gets busy and makes it happen. Sometimes the it she makes happen is falling in behind his personality, ministry and leadership. And good for them both, I say.
Because these particularly leadery church men are called to lead, and become successful doing so, they somehow come to believe that all men are called to lead. They then teach all the men they come across that all men must lead, and they also teach that all men need little micro-congregations, so it follows that reasonably, it must be everyone else other than the men who will do the following.
Girls, that only leaves us.
These pastors will spend a lot of time and energy berating men, some of whom who are not natural leaders, and those who are but who are not yet leaders, to become leaders, and berating all women who are not following all men merely by default of their gender to start doing so. They say we will get everything that they have managed to achieve by such methods if we do so. Success, influence, lots of sex, maybe a book deal, certainly marital harmony.
Problem is as I see it, you don’t get to raise a big old field of corn when you’ve actually got pumpkin seeds to work with in the first place.
The 1% of men in the church who have big, fat personalities like Driscoll, and the 1% of very adaptable, well-resourced and downright clever women they’re possibly married to will probably manage to achieve the stunning results the methods promise. Complimentarianism at its best works when a man who is driven to succeed is supported by a woman who is likewise driven to succeed, and they agree on what it is they both want and are prepared to do. Man goes up – woman comes down. However, put simply, not all people are built – or indeed capable – of traditional, complementary marriages.
I really wish church leaders would stop idealising marriage generally. There is no such thing as a perfect Christian marriage. All human relations are complex, messy, organic and negotiable, or at least I think they should be. Marriages seem to break up largely because of unfulfilled expectations, and while complementarianism works for a good many married people, for others it is merely one more set of hoops they must install and then insist the other jump through. Complementarianism teachers and pastors need to understand that their perfectly round hoops are not shaped like people. It’s not the people that are the problem. It’s your hoops. Some of us have actually tried in the past to jump through the hoops of complementarianism and gotten ourselves in all kinds of trouble.
It’s just not working for all of us, folks.
Complementarian teachers seem to have an abject fear of egalitarianism. I think it’s because they believe that equality in marriage means no hoops at all, and no hoops means the Bible is being disobeyed or God is being mocked. But egalitarianism is not no hoops – it’s simply another set of hoops altogether.
What are those hoops? Mutual submission, and mutual authority. Mutual work and domestic responsibilities. Equal opportunities for ministry and career pursuit. Mutual support in financial and practical issues. Shared responsibility where children are concerned. Mutual deference to strengths and weaknesses, capacity and incapacity. It’s less I do for you and more we do for us. I love it because there is far less opportunity for either of us to martyr ourselves in self-sacrifice for the other, which means less unrequited expectations, and less taking advantage of the other, less pride, and far less self-pity. It doesn’t mean what many complementarianists think it means. It doesn’t mean my husband is emasculated, or I am a feminist. It means we share the responsibility for the way this thing goes, and accountability for it’s success and failure.
Egalitarianism in marriage has become a dirty word of late. Well, you go ahead and swear all you like, but egalitarianism is working out great for us. I would like to speak for the 99% of Christians who are not – or are not married to – a contemporary charismatic mega-church pastor and just say buddy, you go ahead and do whatever works for you, and we’ll just keep doing what we know for sure works for us.
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