I walked into a Christian book store the other day, and happened to look at the section on marriage. And guess what? Every book on the shelf was some variation on “husbands, here’s how to lead your wives/wives, here’s how to submit to your husband’s authority.” Not one book on the shelves said, “Here’s how to be co-leaders together of your home and family. Here’s how to live in mutuality as best friends and partners, deferring to one another in love.”
Books on egalitarian Christian marriage do exist (there’s a great list here), but from what I understand, most Christian book stores simply will not carry them. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a lack of understanding of what Christian egalitarian marriage actually looks like in practice. Myths are promulgated: “Egalitarians think men and women are exactly alike, so Christian egalitarians allow for no differences in what men and women do in the home.” Or: “Christian egalitarian marriages are about both parties making sure the other party does exactly half of the work. They’re about claiming rights, not about giving and serving as Christians should.”
I can’t tell you what every Christian egalitarian marriage looks like. You see, far from trying to make men and women exactly alike, Christian egalitarian marriage actually celebrates differences– not just differences between the sexes, but differences in individuals. There are no boxes that anyone has to squeeze into saying, “This is how you’re supposed to act as a man; this is what you’re supposed to be as a woman.” Each marriage is a unique relationship between two unique people.
So what I can do is tell you what my own marriage looks like. Since my husband and I stopped trying to be complementarian (the gender-roles model where the husband is the leader), everything has felt so much more natural– as we have simply been who we are rather than tried to be what we believed we were supposed to be. But in many ways our marriage doesn’t look that different from what it used to. In fact, if you’re in a happy complementarian marriage, it may not look all that different from your own.
When we go somewhere in the car, my husband usually drives, unless he’s very tired or sick. He usually comes around the car and opens my door for me to get in. When we’re out for a walk, if a tree branch is leaning over the path, my husband is the one who lifts it out of the way for me to walk by. If we are climbing up a steep path, he offers me a hand up. My husband brings me flowers on special occasions, and sometimes “just because.”
I don’t bring him flowers, because they don’t bless him the way they do me.
I cry during movies. He doesn’t. I like jewelry and talking on the phone. He likes watching pro wrestling.
I do almost all the cooking and laundry. He takes out the garbage and puts together furniture. We focus on giving to and pleasing one another, not whether all the chores are divided equally.
But it’s an egalitarian marriage. So what is it, exactly, that makes it different from a complementarian marriage?
First, as I said– we don’t feel constrained to do or be anything that we are not. The traditional-sounding male/female differences above are things we do because they work for us, being who we are. But there is no requirement that it be like this. Here are some other dynamics of our marriage that aren’t quite so traditional:
He does almost all the grocery shopping, since he doesn’t mind it, and I have always hated it. In the summers, I’m the one that barbecues out doors, since I enjoy it and he hates it.
If he’s home when I’m at work, he makes lunch for me to come home to.
I do the yard work, since his back prevents him.
We each do about half the dishes (when we’re not making the kids do them!)
He’s not really into sports– and neither am I. I’m not really into shopping, and I don’t care for “chick flicks.” Neither does he.
We both like old movies, comic books and Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels.
Being egalitarian doesn’t mean we don’t believe males and females are different, or that we don’t celebrate our differences. What it does mean is that he doesn’t have to do or like everything considered masculine, nor do I have to do or like everything considered feminine.
But if you’re complementarian, you may be shaking your head and saying, “But we don’t put ourselves in stereotyped boxes either. We embrace individuality too!”
Here, then, is the real difference.
We are co-leaders of our family. We no longer consider him to be in authority over me. I submit to him, yes– but only as all Christians are to submit to one another, esteeming the other more than ourselves, just as Ephesians 5:21 and Philippians 2:3-4 say to do. In that same sense, he submits to me too.
I take the lead in the everyday finances, because he’s not that good with figures.
He takes the lead when we’re getting to and from places, since I can get lost merely walking across a parking lot.
We make all major decisions together. Since each of us starts out willing to yield to the other, any disagreements are usually resolved in favor of who the issue is more important to. But if we disagree, we have to talk and pray until we find consensus. He doesn’t have an “I make the final decision if we disagree” trump card.
On the other hand, since back in our complementarian days, he never actually used this trump card, this makes no practical difference. We have always sought consensus. He has never wanted to override me.
In short, our marriage has not changed all that much in its outward appearance. The difference is in our attitudes. I can no longer coast along, letting the responsibility for everything rest on him. I have to step up and take responsibility alongside him, shouldering with him the adult load. Any rules that we set for the household and children, we must both be fully willing to enforce. And once we got used to this, we both liked it much better. I am truly his “ezer kenegdo” — his “face-to-face strong aid,” which is what the word translated “help meet” in Genesis 2:20 (KJV) actually means– and this means he is truly not alone. “Bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh” doesn’t mean “he’s the hero and I’m his sidekick.” It means we are two strong individuals together, who have found that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We have our goals and dreams together– and we have our goals and dreams as individuals. We each support the other in both.
Our 24th anniversary was this week. And I’d say that in mutual respect, dignity and love, we are more one than ever.