Inspired by Rachel Held Evans series on Biblical Egalitarianism, I wanted to share some of my story.
When my husband Tim and I married ten years ago, I had a solidly complementarian view of marriage. I held to the “softer” view - that because husbands should be striving to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and because all that Christ asks of us is loving and caring and right, that submitting to my husband in all things was appropriate, easy, and Godly. (In retrospect, doesn’t this idolize husbands? Doesn’t this make them out to be God?)
Problem was, it wasn’t working. By about 5 years into our marriage, shortly after the birth of our first child, we crashed. We both were only marginally aware of the terrible baggage we were carrying - addictions, codependencies, past traumas, depression, passive-aggressiveness, temper issues, manipulativeness, and plain old not really knowing ourselves all that well when we got married. These things were killing us. We could not understand why we were so unhappy. Both of us yearned for something better. Neither of us understood how to get there.
When we hit bottom, we had the incredibly good fortune to be surrounded by other couples who had run through similar problems in their marriages. Most of these couples had been able to face the excruciating process of becoming aware of what was wrong in their marriage, repenting, and slowly working towards change. Following their advice, we found a therapist, and began what turned out to be years of marital therapy. God changed the hearts of both of us, allowing each of us to finally see our damaging behaviors clearly, and gradually changing us into a loving and functional couple.
There were several turning points during that process. One of them was a stark change in my views on marriage. Complementarianism, as I understood it, was damaging me in two ways. One was that I was submitting to things I shouldn’t have. Tim was coping with life the best he knew how, but some of his behaviors were things that anyone on the outside looking in could see were absolutely unacceptable. I would submit to them in order to get the companionship and intimacy I craved, in order to keep him needing me. We were effectively lying to one another, living in a false intimacy cycle ruled by selfishness and denial.
Complementarian beliefs also fanned the flames of my desires for control. I kept attempting to turn Tim into my image of a Christly man, so I could be submitting to someone safe I could trust. I resorted to any means I found necessary. This resulted in nagging, hypervigilance, accusations, public comments designed to humiliate him and shame him into shaping up, solving all his problems for him instead of listening, and just generally acting like his mother. Highly cringeworthy behavior.
One day in the therapists’ office, one of the few times I met with Mary alone, she confronted me about these complementarian beliefs. She gently (Mary was very good at gentle firmness) suggested that egalitarianism was a better model. I’d heard these views elsewhere, but I’d never before connected them to my problems. I began to contemplate what would happen if I owned a belief that Tim and I were equals, two humans both flawed who should both submit to Christ and to one another. After thought and much prayer, I switched models. It became clear to me that submitting to Tim’s unacceptable behaviors was a betrayal of my allegiance to Christ and his view of me as beautiful and lovely. It became clear to me that Tim’s faith journey was his, and his alone. It was never my job to fix him. I didn’t have to turn him into the perfect person to submit to, because my job was to submit to Christ. It was absolutely ok for me to take care of myself in a healthy way, to make my needs known, and for me to allow him to experience the consequences of his choices in our marriage. It was also ok for me to seek out Godly ways to love Tim, that were based on accepting who he was, honoring his gifts, letting him be the man GOD made him to be, and not the one I wanted him to be.
I was thrilled at the changes I was seeing in myself as I switched views! So what did I, as a recovering codependent do with my newfound views? Of course, I sat Tim down and tried to convert him to my way of thinking. I laid out all the rational arguments, all the evidence of the change in me after I’d embraced this way of thinking, all the biblical reasoning, everything. Yup - after I accepted that I needed to allow Tim the freedom to think for himself, I immediately tried to continue thinking for him.
As you can imagine, he was unimpressed. He still held to the view that there was something intrinsically different in men’s and women’s roles in marriage, that men needed respect on a different level than women did, and that women needed nurturing on a different level than men.
I bet you can guess what happened next. I picked several more nights to argue with him and try to persuade him otherwise. I can tell I’m having a bad argument with Tim when I sit on the kitchen counter so that I’m at eye level with him - I think out of some subconscious need to be on even ground. I was sitting on the counter during one of those arguments when the irony of the situation hit me.
"Wait a minute!" I said.
"What!!!" Tim said wearily.
"What if… I mean… Do we not have to think the same?"
Tim had resorted at this point to the counter sitting as well. He waited, ready to defend himself if need be at whatever I continued to say.
I stared at the floor, then looked up.
"Maybe… maybe if you value male headship, and you think that your role is to love me sacrificially, and if I believe in egalitarianism, and I think that my role is to love you sacrificially… maybe we can believe different things and still have a healthy, safe, honest marriage?"
"Yes!" said Tim. "Can we be done with this now please?"
He left the room, and I sat there stunned. We could be different people, hold really different ideological views, and stay happily married? Granted, some things we had to agree on - we had to agree to be honest, unselfish, have healthy communication, above all to love each other. We had to do the difficult work of figuring out what that meant in each segment of our lives - our lives as parents, as members of our church and neighborhood communities, as managers of our finances, as lovers. But we could hold differing views on marital equality AND STILL GET ALONG! Sure I wanted to call a spade a spade, and his views seemed like egalitarianism if they were really worked out the way that he believed they ideally should be, but I didn’t have to make him see that! God could give me that egalitarian marriage I craved even if my husband thought differently! I could let him go! I could let God work out his heart in Tim. I didn’t have to do it!
We are years away from that stunning revelation on the kitchen counter. I am still struggling to let Tim go. But I’m better at it than I used to be. The other night, I asked him for an update on his views of marriage. Was he still complementarian, I wanted to know?
Tim looked over at me, did this sort of simultaneous smile and wince, and said “Can I subscribe to I-don’t-care-ianism?”. I laughed, and then I made a couple of lame attempts to get him to take a position. He pointed out that it was eleven o’clock at night, gave me a kiss, and lovingly told me to buzz off so he could get a good nights sleep. And I let it go. Tim is required to love me sacrificially. He is not required to have well-thought-out theological positions. It might actually be ok if I care more about theology than he does! Now that I’m not insisting on a complementarian model of marriage, I can give Tim the privilege of NOT being the lead in everything.
What was confusion, stress, and anger has resolved into balance.
What was yearning and straining and frightening has resolved into peace.
We disagree, my husband and I. And its ok.