Rob and Julie1 were quite certain they had the formula for a successful marriage. God had brought them through a rough season early in their marriage, and now they had a testimony. Their secret? Be sure the wife submits every decision, large or small, to the husband. Serve him around the clock and show him deference in every way. Julie followed this formula wholeheartedly—and Rob divorced her shortly after their twentieth anniversary.
For those of us who knew them, what we had long suspected became evident: behind the closed doors of this supposedly godly marriage, abuse ran rampant. Julie’s efforts to submit only brought her more pain. In the end, her husband cast her aside as no longer worthy of love.
It’s easy to see how hierarchical marriages like Rob’s and Julie’s can hurt wives, since a doctrine of wifely (but not mutual) submission places them in a vulnerable position where they are often abused. It’s a bit more difficult to see how hierarchical marriage hurts husbands, but it does.
A Husband’s Wariness
In our own marriage journey of nearly thirty-nine years, my husband and I have changed the way we relate to one another. While we were raising our three sons, we were steeped in all the best-known Christian books and teachings on marriage, most of which were decidedly hierarchical. We listened to Focus on the Family broadcasts. We heard sermons and read books on the role of husband as leader in the home. My husband even led a Wild at Heart small group for the guys at church. And so on.
I should mention my husband has always been what many people would consider a “manly man.” He’s very athletic and played three sports in high school. He loves flyfishing, hunting, and the great outdoors in general. He is physically strong. As far as stereotypical men’s ministry activities went, he never had trouble fitting in.
Yet, long before we had a change of heart as to how marriage should work, my husband expressed a growing discomfort with the approach and attitudes in Christian teaching based on hierarchy. He observed how this emphasis made men’s ministry overwhelmingly negative, emphasizing how men fail to measure up—and that such an approach does anything but encourage men to be honest with one another. He was tired of the same old stuff, month after month, year after year. There was no fresh ground, nor was there room for men with an artistic bent or an introspective nature.
He didn’t like John Eldridge’s push toward risk in Wild at Heart. He was weary of the high-cholesterol foods at men’s breakfasts and how the activities limited the group to a certain kind of guy. He became frustrated with the shame-based protocol of asking each other hard questions followed by the coup de grâce, “Did you just lie to me?”
He wondered, Why do men have to eat crappy food and act like grunting cavemen when we gather? Aren’t we smarter than that? Why do we have to pursue dangerous activities to prove our manhood, rather than beauty and art and higher thinking?
When we joined a small group at church focusing on Emerson Eggerichs’s Love and Respect, the teaching simply didn’t sit right with my husband—in fact, it bothered him more than it did me at the time. While I tended to comply with popular Christian instruction as part of my voiceless way of living, my husband thought the idea that men only need respect and women only need love made no sense. It was like saying individual men and women aren’t whole people. He felt it was foolish to think wives don’t need respect or husbands don’t need love, because that’s simply not true.
A Wife’s Realization
Much as I tried to make them work, the boxes that much complementarian teaching tries to force men and women into were no longer fitting so well for us. We were discovering there was much more to each of the genders than we had been led to believe.
As my husband wrestled with his uneasiness around the hierarchical teachings we’d always accepted, such as the headship of the husband in the home, rigid gender roles, and the resulting limitations to my sense of adulthood as a female, I was experiencing a journey of my own. I was healing from old wounds, recovering my voice, and learning to reevaluate things I’d always thought of as true about Christian marriage.
Looking back, I believe my acceptance of common complementarian teachings on Christian marriage caused me to fail my husband—and my children—in several important ways. I left big decisions to my husband, and often small ones too. This left him carrying a burden which God meant for us to carry together. Being the decision-maker may have offered my husband an inflated sense of power and importance, but it also overwhelmed and exhausted him.
I didn’t function as an equal team member when it came to parenting, either. I remember a time when I lost patience with our sons and spoke harshly to them. My husband chimed in, “Okay, let’s all calm down.” It was a gentle reminder for me to exercise patience and kindness as a mom—the kind of reminder my husband regularly provided for me. However, when he became impatient or unreasonable with the boys, I did not speak up. He was the husband and leader, so I didn’t question his actions or words. I failed to provide him with the balance and perspective he gave me.
I believe our lopsided parenting was unhealthy and confusing for our children.
To add to all this, because I left decisions to my husband and did not use my voice or agency in our marriage or parenting, resentment about the power imbalance in our relationship festered in my soul. Negative emotions lurked beneath my “submissive wife” exterior. I functioned more like a half-grown child than a woman, all while trying hard to be the Christian wife I thought I was supposed to be.
My husband and I were playing out the roles scripted for us by familiar teachings, but those roles stunted our growth and limited our relationship. Put bluntly, popular Christian teaching on marriage motivated me to treat my husband as an idol. He was the one with all the answers, the source for whatever I needed. He was the one responsible for everything, even my spiritual welfare.
At the time, my husband and I thought we were doing the right thing.
A New Approach to Marriage—Biblical Mutuality
The pivotal moment in our marriage occurred just a few years ago. I had started reading The Liberating Truth: How Jesus Empowers Women by Danielle Strickland, in which the writer of the foreword calls the author a trailblazer. As we hiked in the Pioneer Mountains, I saw literal trailblazes in the woods—marks on the trees to help travelers follow the trail even under deep snow. I sensed God saying to me, I want you to be a pioneer. I want you to trailblaze for women.
That same summer, we attended our church network’s annual family camp, where our guest speakers were a married couple who exhorted the gathered churches to practice biblical equality between men and women. An old memory surfaced that week from early in my marriage:
We’d been married three months. I was experiencing depression, and when I asked for prayer at church, I was given a “word” that my depression stemmed from misalignment—that I needed to “stop wearing the spiritual pants” and come under my husband’s authority. I believe God speaks through individuals today by means of the gift of prophecy, but as a young woman, I did not know how to evaluate prophetic words. I simply tried to comply.
After this memory came to mind, I got together with a wise friend who is now a pastor. As I shared the memory, my friend’s eyes grew wide with alarm. I assured her I had come to realize that was not a word from God—it was, in fact, demonic in origin. She not only agreed but prayed with me to break any remaining hold that evil word had on my husband and me.
From that time forward, I felt as though a dark veil was lifted from our marriage. My husband and I began walking in greater agreement about the value of both men and women, and in a unified passion to pursue a better way of doing marriage and life.
These days, the two of us make our decisions together and support one another as equals. Rather than stuffing ourselves into the suffocating roles of hierarchical marriage, we enjoy the freedom and growth of the wider space provided by biblical mutuality.
For my seminary work, I recently did a word study on the Hebrew term ezer from Genesis 2:18, where God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper [ezer] suitable for him.” God created a woman out of the man because the man’s alone-ness was not good. Yet hierarchical marriage places a man at the top—a position which is solitary by nature. Only in a mutual marriage is a husband’s alone-ness alleviated. Only in an equal partnership is he relieved of the burden of carrying responsibilities by himself. Only with a capable, corresponding companion at his side will he be as healthy and happy as God intends for him to be in marriage.
By the same token, only in being delivered from spousal idolatry is a Christian wife truly free to wholeheartedly worship God. Only when she moves out of deference to her husband and, instead, willingly steps into her God-given, shared responsibility alongside him does she function as the authentic, healthy human being God created her to be.
My husband and I are a personal testament to the fact that husbands and wives benefit most from biblical mutuality, not from hierarchy. As we found out the hard way, it’s lonely at the top.
1. Names changed for anonymity.
Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.
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Love and Respect: A Better Way
The Consequences of Complementarianism for Men
The Old Testament Marriage That Showed Me Equality is God’s Design