Friday, March 30, 2012

What Does a Christian Egalitarian Marriage Look Like?

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 at Christian Egalitarian Marriage) 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.


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Wonderful post and Happy Anniversary!

Isn't it great not trying to squeeze one's self into a mold?

I wonder how many marriages have ended or are struggling due to the couple not being able to perform the complementarian gender roles to their satisfaction.

Kay said...

That's it. You nailed it. Mine looks very similar.
Happy Anniversary!!

Aussie John said...


Thank you for an excellent representation of the outworking of a Christian marriage.

Congratulations on your 24th!

My wife and I recently celebrated our 50th, but it is by the grace of God that we reached that place, and looking forward to many more anniversaries.

My upbringing and early Christian experience (from 12 years of age onward) was the traditional antithesis of what you describe.

During the early years of pastoral ministry, my study of Scripture showed the glaring folly of continuing down that road.

God designed men and women as equal partners, in mutual submission. The only way two can become one!

Crooked Bird said...

This is a lovely description of your marriage, and reminds me of mine--not in the specifics (he's good with numbers and I'm not!) but in the flexibility, the practicality, the friendship.

I've only recently learned of "face-to-face strong aid" as a translation of ezer kenegdo, and it's sort of convicting me to step up and take more responsibility! My husband is twelve years older than me, and even at my age he was probably more responsible than I am now, and he's more than happy to arrange, say, travel details for me and I'm more than happy to let him. But it's important for him not to have to carry too much, for him to know he can count on me. (And he can--the time it really comes out is in moments of unexpected crisis, which I'm good with and he is not! But it shouldn't be only then!)

In fact, I should go now, because he's lying on the couch feeling a bit under the weather and I think I'm going to go set up the church-service chairs for him...

Anonymous said...

Lovely post! Thanks!

Mind if I add an observation that I've made in my own egalitarian marriage?

I think egalitarian marriage can aid both partners in being able to express when they are frustrated or overwhelmed. For instance, my husband is often stressed by his role as primary breadwinner. We both hope that someday in the future, my career path will allow me to contribute as much to the family budget, thus easing his burden and allowing him to pull back on his work hours and pursue other passions.

However, if we were complementarian, I think he would be afraid to express these frustrations or hopes to me, because he would see primary provision as "always" being his goal. He would not see a future in which I could share the load and free him up for other things.

An example on my end: I am working part time and in a very demanding school program. About a year into the program, I started feeling very overwhelmed by the burden of cooking and caring for the house on top of homework and regular work. Because we are egalitarian, I didn't feel uncomfortable bringing this up to my husband. Neither of us felt strange about dividing up the housework into more equitable shares. When my school program ends and I have more free time, we will probably rearrange duties again, depending on whatever most suits our lifestyle at that point.

In other words, I think egal marriage can set the stage for more honest communication between partners about what's working and what's not, and about how they feel about life in general. Complementarians often see this as being "selfish" but I really don't see how it is. All people, at some time, have to express when something isn't working right. You might as well have a safe space to do that in, instead of putting all this pressure on people to pretend to be one thing or the other.


Anonymous said...


Don Johnson

Kristen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristen said...

I appreciate everyone's kind words. And Red-- I think you're absolutely right, and how can we object to a way of doing marriage that bears such good fruit? (Honesty with ourselves and our spouses, resulting in a truer meeting of one another's needs, certain does seem better fruit than shame and hiding our needs from ourselves and our spouses.)

Anonymous said...

Happy anniversary, Sis! Yes, I too have noticed that the only marriage books in the Christian bookstores are the type you mention. Kind of sad. -- Kimbre

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience in a Christian bookshop recently. I was looking for books on women in ministry and I found two, neither of which supported wom,en in ministry. One of them almost made me laugh out loud. It was a very detailed outline of the roles and functions women may and may not have in a church, and why. It said things like 'why not let women read aloud from scripture?', like it was such a liberal thing to do. It even supported women leading one or two classes that taught men, provided that they only do so for one or two weeks as part of a team (because otherwise it would start to look like she was leading the class). It was bizarre.

Charis said...

Congratulations! Sounds very satisfying, a "marriage made in heaven"! :)

Thankfully, the internet allows knowledge and depth of insight to prosper outside the control of a bookstore. eg. I just read a wonderful piece about egalitarian Christian marriage by KR!

Keep sharing and please consider cross posting this entry.

Kristen said...

Kimbre-- Thanks, Sis!

Annonymous, yes-- it's really odd how much law gets added to the gospel under the restrictionist view. Lists and lists of rules are necessary, and even then they can't agree on them, so how can they be so sure they're getting it right?

Charis, please check your e-mail/facebook. I've posted this and another post on the Christian Egalitarian Marriage site for you to schedule. :)

Paul Burleson said...


First, let me congratulate you both on your anniversary. Our 53rd is coming in May. It's been quite an adventure for us too.

Mary and I are complete opposites. We celebrate those differences also. But the differences don't fall along the lines of what are commonly called male/ female characteristics at all.

She's the analytical one and I'm the emotional one. [Not that either lacks the other..emphasis only.] She loves to keep books and pay bills and I love to shop and tinker around the house. She enjoys yard work and I enjoy house cleaning.

She hates to drive and I love to, but never do it with her car unless she wishes me to. She asks me to most of the time. My pickup...always me driving unless she request to and I agree. [She never does request.]

She's a clogger..I'm not. I'm a sports fanatic..she's not. When I go with her to a dance event..I do whatever she says. it's her thing. When she goes to a sports event..she follows my lead. It's my thing.

We've tried to bring a healthy "I" [that's me] and a healthy "you" [that's her] together in a healthy "we." [That's us in a marriage.]

Why "who's the boss" would ever be an issue is beyond us. Thanks for reminding us of that and why we love 'egalitarianism." [I don't like labels as I've read you don't either, but they communicate concepts rather well.

Kristen said...

Thank you for giving another example of egalitarian marriage, Paul, and illustrating my point that each one is uniqeu.

If you know I dislike labels, then you've gone back and read some of my earliest posts-- I appreciate that!

Paul Burleson said...


How about "many" of them! ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much. We have been married 33 years. The first 31 we practiced the Headship/Submissive way. It almost destroyed our marriage. Now I can happily say that we are equals in every sense and have a much stronger friendship. Why anyone would not want their partner to be their peer is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

I was raised to believe in your co-leader image of marriage. Even after joining a strongly faith based, bible believing church, I married planning to practice a co-leader, role equality, style of marriage.

But then, shortly after our wedding, I was badly injured in a motorcyle-pickup truck collision. I spent some time in a full body cast, and had a day nurse attend me on weekdays. My nurse's name was Nadine.

Nadine was the happiest, most joyful person I had ever met. Considering her duties in caring for me, that was very impressive. So I asked he what caused her to be so joyful? She said she was so happy because she would soon go home to her wonderful, loving husband.

She went much further and said that the last two years of her marriage were literally Heaven on Earth. But she said it wasn't always like that. She had been married for 12 years, and the first ten years were literally Hell on Earth.

She said she was so miserable that as she turned her calendar to a new month, she circled a date in the third week when she determined to visit a lawyer and start a divorce process.

But the following week she was reading Paul's commandment to wives, and asked herself if she had ever tried to be a wife in obedience to God's word. She admitted she had not. So she decided that she would try it for one week, so she could say after divorcing her #%@$%!^#$ husband that it wasn't her fault her marriage failed.

Then she told me that the instant she stopped contending with her husband over every little thing, she began to feel his love for her in all that he did for her. She became aware that at home or at work, her husband spent nearly every waking hour serving her. And she began to feel loved, deeply loved, by him. So she felt motivated to try to please him more, which he responded to by doubling his efforts to please her.

Then she said that from that moment on, her marriage had been Heaven on Earth. She said should she die today, and God was to ask her what she wanted for her Heaven, She would say only to have her husband with her and that they could continue to raise their children together, forever.

Finally, she cocked her head and asked, "What changed?" She answered, "Only my attitude."

I tell this story to introduce the point that contention drives away the Holy Spirit, which spirit is necessary to feel loving, or to feel loved. Therefore, contention must be avoided at all costs.

So why must it be the wife that submits to her husband, and not the husband to his wife? Well, try it both ways and see. There is something about the natures of men and women that it works one way and not the other.

Women, sisters, if you want to find joy in your marriage, submit to and honor your husband, as you do to Christ.

Notice that I said nothing about which of you take out the garbage, cooks, cleans or does dishes.

A submissive wife can and should counsel with her husband, helping him/them make the best decisions and choices. He will welcome your views and feelings, when he has confidence that you will support his decisions. You can also rely upon his desire to please you. Without contention, a husband will most often sacrifice what he wants to choose what pleases his wife, because pleasing his wife is what he wants most of all, except pleasing God.

Be well. Live joyfully.

Kristen said...

Annonymous, you are raising a false dichotomy here. It is simply not true that the opposite of the husband-in-authority marriage is strife and contention. Nor have I ever said, once, that I do not submit to my husband or that I don't believe wives should submit to their husbands.

You said, "So why must it be the wife that submits to her husband, and not the husband to his wife? Try it both ways and see. There is something about the natures of men and women that it works one way and not the other."

But in the verse directly before "wives submit to your husbands," the Bible says, "Submit to one another." Eph. 5:21. I think Nadine's marriage became happy because she stopped contending with her husband and started submitting to him-- but he had already been submitting to her. As you say, "she became aware that at home or at work, her husband spent nearly every waking hour serving her." That's what submission is-- selfless service, putting the other's needs before your own.

There is nothing in your story that indicates that Nadine's marriage became happy because she decided to let her husband be in charge. It is clear that it became happy because it went from being a contentious marriage to a mutually submissive marriage. I believe that's what Paul was trying to get Christian married couples to do-- because first-century non-Christian marriages were about an older man buying a young woman from her father, so that she could bear his children and keep his house in seclusion-- while he had a mistress for sexual pleasure and his group of male friends for company.

Please read my "Does the Bible Teach Male Headship?" and "The Bible and the Nature of Women" posts.

Does the Bible Teach Male Headship? Part 1

Does the Bible Teach Male Headship? Part 2

The Bible and the Nature of Woman

Anonymous said...

I'm very happy to read your article on mutual submission and equality in marriages. Although I am a Christian, one thing that really turned me off the prospect of marrying another Christian (I am a woman) was that every Christian man I have met so far takes St. Paul's teachings out of their historical context and uses them instead as an excuse to justify their desire to chauvinistically control women, which is not what God wishes us to do or what Jesus himself showed in His own example when He lived on the earth. I also have found that most Christian women submissively support this. I thus went secular in dating and male female friendships, which was much better in terms of how men treated me, but did not work romantically since these men mostly could not accept my refusal to grant them physical favours before marriage, which was their own way of disrespecting women. Therefore, I found that I could not win, although I did get along much better with the non-Christian men in terms of their overall attitudes in friendships.

I lived in the Middle East, and actually found that the less serious, nominal and more educated Moslem men were much easier to get on with than the conservative, uptight and eager-to-control-women Western men.

It's disappointing that most men from my own belief system are still living in the Middle Ages, even more so than the more educated and less religious among the Moslem men.

Also, I believe that the stone aged attitudes of Christian men towards women is one of the main things turning Westerners off their own religion. Have you also noted that the newest Western religion, paganism, and the associated New Age Movement, accepts men and women as equal? Thus its appeal. People need to grow up.

Anyway, I'm glad to see that there are some Western Christian men who actually believe in equality. I hope I can have the chance to meet some of them. Maybe there is hope for me after all.

Kristen said...

Anonymous, thanks for your story and your insights-- and yes, I do think that there is a natural human tendency to use scripture to uphold our own desires for power and control. To the original audience reading Paul's words in the first century, they would have sounded like a radical call to a kingdom lifestyle of mutual honor and service-- and I know that many Christian men today, even if they believe in "male headship," take that place only reluctantly and with a real desire to use their supposed authority in terms of service. But there are also those who are eager to buttress their own deep-rooted attitudes of male supremacy and use the scriptures as a defense of that.