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When Marriage Isn't Mutual

On July 09, 2012

Finding oneself married to a non-egalitarian spouse, whether male or female, can be a challenging road to navigate. Consider these case studies.

Norma and Charlie:

It was love at first sight. Norma and Charlie’s eyes, in all actuality, met “across a crowded room” at their conservative denomination’s annual meeting. Life for the Browns began, as for most entering into marriage, with delight and optimism.

The Browns’ church held strongly to the view that “women should be silent” (1 Cor. 14:34), and that all leadership in the church should be male. The congregation was taught that God was male, as Jesus called him “Father” (John 10:30). And, for the first years of their marriage, Norma obediently adhered to the teachings of her church and to the lifestyle she had experienced in her patriarchal childhood home. She submitted to Charlie as he made all of the family decisions and controlled the finances, and she embraced her role as a stay-at-home mother.

But then Norma’s neighbor invited her to attend a women’s Bible study, providing her with new friends whom she began to trust. For the first time in her life, Norma learned that the Bible demonstrates that God has feminine characteristics, likening God to a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14); a nursing mother (Isa. 49:15–16); a mother hen (Luke 14:34); and a mother who comforts her small child (Ps. 131:2). Norma and Charlie were taught that man, and not woman, was created in the image of God, implying that women were “less than,” and that their husbands’ “desires” must be obeyed. But now Norma was learning that women are also made in God’s image. She read that Jesus respected women, affirming their dignity at a time in history when women were considered property and virtually had no voice. It amazed her that Jesus gave a woman authority to speak his words to the disciples (John 20:17).

These fresh perspectives gave Norma a whole new view of God, and she began to love her Savior in a deeply personal way. She felt profound relief and rejuvenation and longed to share these feelings with Charlie. But how would he respond? How would Norma live out her new convictions about mutuality in marriage if her spouse disagreed?

Paul and Mary:

“Bridal school” was the path Mary’s parents intended her to walk when they sent her to a one-year Bible school after high school to meet a young man with similar denominational roots. Instead, she met Paul, an egalitarian, and despite her family’s objections, Mary stood up to her parents and married him.

Paul loves his wife and is attracted not only to her beauty, but also to her tender character. When they study Scripture together, he marvels at her insight and wisdom. Yet, he learns that the “gentle spirit” he first saw in Mary, who was raised as a complementarian, was actually her attempt to be the passive wife she believes is taught in the Bible and has seen modeled by her mother. Paul views her as an equal in their relationship, but Mary feels conflicted by his affirmation, having never witnessed this picture of partnership in her parental home.

Paul sees potential in Mary that she cannot see in herself, and he longs for her to live boldly and share in the decision-making for their family. How might he respond to his wife’s long-held and deeply rooted passivity? As an egalitarian man, how can he encourage her to use her gifts when she believes God intends very different roles for men and women?

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How might those in situations similar to that of Norma and Paul navigate these challenges? What practical advice and encouragment do you have?

(Be sure to also check out Mutuality vol. 19, issue 2 (Summer 2012) to read Morven’s insights for men and women who are married to non-egalitarians.)

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