Growing up in a complementarian, Baptist church environment, I thought I knew exactly what God expected a Christian wife to be. I was confident that a good Christian wife keeps her house clean and orderly; it is to be her hard-working husband’s haven. She ensures that her husband comes home to a homemade meal every evening. She stays out of the financial affairs of the home because her husband is the breadwinner. She obeys him without question. She supports him no matter what. She does not complain. She does not rebel. She is her husband’s faithful (albeit often silent and invisible) helper.
I am an introverted people-pleaser and a rule-following perfectionist. From a very early age, I eagerly awaited the day when submissive and total obedience to my husband would become my joyful mantra. I was determined to be the best helper a man ever had. In fact, I worshipped that role. I believed my worth depended upon my performance as a dutiful, submissive wife. I wanted that proverbial Proverbs 31 Woman merit badge!
Fast-forward to my mid-twenties when I learned that the traditional English translation for the word ezer does not mean what pastors and youth group leaders and purity retreats said it meant. It is not the wimpy term for “subservient helper” I once thought, reserved for ladies’ teas, sermons about submission, or bridal showers. In fact, the majority of times it is used in Scripture, it is used to describe God as the warrior-helper of his people. It illustrates the dedicated way in which he fights for his people. It denotes not only strength and authority but equality. When God created Eve to be the ezer of Adam, he made her Adam’s equal in every way.
I was still new to egalitarianism when Ben and I got married last summer. To have a relationship founded on Christ’s love and based upon co-leadership, mutual submission, and equality is absolutely wonderful. Yet, as I reflect upon our first full year as husband and wife, I realize that the lies of complementarianism still rear their ugly head.
I can see that I still harbor guilt, shame, and pride where they ought not to be. There are moments when I still want desperately to be that picture-perfect complementarian wife I always imagined myself being. There are many harmful tenants of complementarianism but I would like to highlight the three I have been actively unlearning during this first year of matrimony.
The first lie I have battled as a newlywed relates to finances. A few months before our wedding, my husband became unemployed. He works sporadically as odd, short-term jobs come to his attention but my job has been our primary source of income. I am also the manager of our finances, which is a sin to many complementarians. I regret to say that I have allowed myself to become resentful when, even after relentlessly searching for work, he is still unemployed. In those moments, I am selfishly believing that the husband must supply the bulk of the income simply because he is male.
I have also felt guilty that my paycheck does not allow for much beyond the bare necessities. We’re both minimalists so my feeling of guilt makes little sense; however, it stems from the complementarian notion that my ultimate role is to make my husband’s life as comfortable as possible.
The truth is, both single and married women in the Bible worked outside of the confines of modern complementarian gender roles. Many women, including Rachel and Zipporah (Genesis 29; Exodus 2), were in charge of their father’s sheep. Ruth was a literal breadwinner as she gleaned in the fields to keep her mother-in-law from starving (Ruth 2:23). The Proverbs 31 woman was an entrepreneur who owned land. Lydia was a wealthy businesswoman (Acts 16). Priscilla was a skilled tentmaker (Acts 18). 1 Timothy 5:3-8 speaks to the practical and spiritual importance of providing for ourselves and our families, no matter our gender.
The second lie is that I am solely responsible for the upkeep of our house. The home is supposed to be the woman’s domain in complementarian theology; however, of the two of us, I am home the least. Ben regularly does what complementarianism says is the woman’s job.
I am so grateful but I have caught myself thinking, “it should have been me doing that.” If I come home from work and something is dirty or I do not have the energy to cook, I feel like I am a failure. I have said over and over, “I’m such a bad wife because…” fill in the blank: there are dirty dishes in the sink, supper wasn’t homemade, the laundry needs to be folded. I know my value as Ben’s wife does not depend on how clean our house is and yet I still feel the need to apologize for not living up to the ideal complementarian woman.
Let me be clear: living out traditional gender roles is not wrong. The Bible neither speaks of nor supports gender roles. They are a societal construct which means you have the right to choose whether you want to adhere to them or not. You and your spouse can—and should—work together as a team in whatever ways are most practical. If it makes more sense and feels more fulfilling to step outside of traditional roles, you have that freedom. If not, that is perfectly fine. As equal members on the same team, you get to decide what’s best for you.
When I do begin to feel the complementarian guilt and pride creep up and envelope my heart, I tell Ben. We talk about it and, after reminding me I do not need to apologize every time there is a dirty dish in the sink, he reaffirms that God wants us to practice equality by sharing the responsibilities of daily life. God designed us to work together and sometimes that means we take turns washing the dishes. Acts 4:32 says, “the entire group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common.” If we cannot live that out in our own home how then can we hope to practice selfless community in the world?
The third lie is that I am supposed to defer to him in all things because God values husbands more than he values wives.
It is true that I am to have a “steady wish for [his] ultimate good as far as it can be obtained” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves) but that goes for Ben, too. We are equally valuable to God which means that our individual needs, desires and opinions are equally important.
Ephesians 5:21 says we are to submit to each other; therefore our home does not function under the complementarian implication that his desires matter more than mine, that all final decision making belongs to him, or that our unique identities should be welded into his one. We defer to each other as equals. We honor each other’s strengths and respect each other’s weaknesses. We make decisions together. We support each other’s goals, wishes, and opinions.
When we are practicing mutual submission, it feels natural. It feels loving. Frankly, it feels easy. All relationships require work but when both parties are selflessly putting each other first and regularly practicing open and honest communication, that work becomes much easier. When both spouses are being treated as partners with equal status, the work of marriage becomes much more enjoyable.
Just as there is unity and equality between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, there is to be unity and equality between the husband and the wife. The roles we play are of secondary importance and ought to depend on our strengths and preferences rather than societal expectations.
I know I am not the only person living an egalitarian marriage as a recovering complementarian. Maybe you, too, feel guilty when you fail to adhere to traditional gender roles. Or perhaps traditional gender roles work well for your marriage but you fear your motivation is shame or pride.
I encourage you to keep open communication with your partner. Build your marriage off of what aligns with Scripture rather than man-made traditions or roles. Talk to older couples who function as egalitarians in their marriage, too; the wisdom which comes from experience can be invaluable. Take heart and know that even when it comes to communal dirty dishes, “there is neither male nor female…for we are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).