Mark and I never meant to become egalitarians, at least not until we discovered we already were. This is the story of the long, winding road to recognize and gratefully celebrate that we are egalitarians. In retrospect, we were on that journey from the very first.
I grew up in a Christian home, where my father was presumed to be the boss of our family. My mother seldom questioned or contradicted him in the hearing of their six children. My husband’s mother unquestioningly and consistently acquiesced to her “beloved hubby.” Thankfully both men were godly and they did not exercise leadership or authority unkindly or unwisely.
Mark and I both attended a Christian college where students were “gender-specific courteous.” Men were expected pull out chairs and open doors for women. It made little sense to me that a woman should stand awkwardly in the dining hall, waiting for a man to notice her and pull out her chair so she could sit. Likewise, it troubled me that a man could have his arms full of books and a woman might be carrying nothing, yet the man was still expected to open the door. But, that’s just the way it was.
Mark and I entered marriage assuming male headship and wifely submission would characterize our family. For thirty-plus years we rolled along thinking we had a “biblical” complementarian marriage, asking no questions about what that meant.
As we started our life together my husband exercised his “godly leadership” by paying the bills. He did not enjoy the task and particularly disliked trying to balance the checkbook. I will never forget the day he was despairing over the difference between the bank statement and the checkbook and I asked, “Would you like me to pay the bills and balance the checkbook?” With a sigh of relief he pushed the red CorningWare “bill box” across the kitchen table. He has written as few checks as possible ever since. With good reason, he trusted my judgement in financial matters. With less merit, he trusted my math skills, but I have a calculator and have kept the books balanced. It did not occur to us to wonder if he had abdicated his responsibility or if I had failed to submit. We just divided the labor in a way that made sense and matched our skill sets.
When Mark went to seminary, I was still typing his papers on a Royal Standard typewriter. I would type after dinner, dishes, laundry, and bathing and bedding children. Late one night I typed while he slept. It dawned on me that he typed as well as I did, he had more time, and there was no particular reason for me to type for him except that it was what seminary wives did. In the morning I asked him if he thought he should type his own papers. He readily agreed and continues to do his own work to this day.
At one crucial turning point in our life I was quite confident of a ministry career opportunity we had been offered. He was less so, but was encouraged to move ahead because I thought I could see the way. Again, we never considered whether he was failing to lead. We were simply making decisions in a way that made sense.
Mark became a pastor, and he preached on submission only occasionally. Meanwhile, I taught a traditional complementarian view the few times the topic came up in Bible studies I led. It never seemed quite fair, but we thought it was in the Bible and we thought it seemed quite plain. In reality we had not truly thought.
When a couple in our church taught a class on marriage, they scheduled a “submission potluck” to discuss the topic which had come up previously in a session but had remained unresolved. I was not in the class, but was invited to the dinner. I was stunned when the husband of the teaching team said, “I love my wife more when she submits.” Frustrated by the discussion, I proposed we have a “husbands love your wives” potluck. We did, but to my dismay it didn’t generate much meaningful interaction. When the husband of the teaching couple was out of town, the question of whether the wife could teach alone rose to the level of the elder board.
Women did not teach mixed gender adult classes or preach. The possibility of a woman pastor was completely unimaginable. No one thought about it; it was just the way things were. I didn’t want to teach or preach so I didn’t worry very much about it even though the practice seemed unfair and inconsistent.
In 2002 I had the extraordinary opportunity to go to seminary with expenses paid by my employer. My first class was about women in ministry. I struggled with and resisted the concept that while women were not inferior, their gender prevented them from leadership in the church and the family. After one class I proposed to the professor that there was no way to exclude women from leadership and continue to maintain they were not inferior. She responded thoughtfully and with a carefully measured agreement. She was a single woman who had borne the burden of being misunderstood in her cross-cultural ministry in Asia and by churches and pastors in the United States. We have continued our discussions on the topic in the ensuing years. I am grateful that her class pushed me to think more critically about gender issues in the church and family and to start asking myself harder questions.
My favorite and most life-changing class was Theology of Gender. The reading and writing assignments were mind-benders. The professor forced us to think, rethink, and think again. After reading a massive collection of essays by complementarians, the only thing I could conclude was that the main function of male headship was to break a tie when husband and wife disagreed. The writers used difficult Scripture passages to support their arguments and their evidences were weak and conflicting. The more I read and thought, the more disenchanted I became with what I had assumed I believed. I collected and read many books about gender including The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir and The Church and the Second Sex by Mary Daly, as well as works by Phyllis Trible, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Nancy Hardesty, and Pepper Schwartz. I was thinking as I never had before. A new world opened, and I was nearly persuaded of egalitarianism, though I was conflicted. I was relieved and reassured when the professor, a friend whom I deeply respect, closed the class by saying, “I would be comfortable to have a woman as my senior pastor.” I began to suspect that maybe I never had been a complementarian.
Mark and I talked endlessly about gender issues. He was not as troubled as I was by the inconsistencies of complementarianism, until one day I asked, “What do headship and submission look like in our marriage?” We had no answer.
We had long taken care of things based on our skills and according to who had time. Through the years both of us had taken the lead to pick out our cars and houses and arrange financing. We both worked outside the home and shared the load of managing our household. We frequently tried to be the first to leave the house to take the older and less comfortable of our two cars. Mark had taken over the grocery shopping years earlier. When my parents began to need a lot of extra care, he expertly cleaned our house for several years, giving me the gift of time to tend to them. Neither of us could think of a single time we had not been able to make an agreeable decision. We had never made a move or career change that was not mutually beneficial. He had never asked me to submit and I had never felt it necessary to be led by him. We had made it our rule to treat each other like Christians and were well-served by that practice.
It was our habit to go out for coffee on Saturdays and for two or three years the topic of conversation for most of our Starbucks sessions was gender equality and inequality. Tears were shed, feelings were hurt, and sometimes we didn’t make a lot of progress. Our deep love and respect for each other and our determination to seek the best for each other carried us through this difficult time.
When I was about done with my studies, Mark, by then a seminary professor, was working through key Scripture texts related to the issue. By the time he taught Pastoral Epistles, he had concluded that Paul’s instructions limiting the role of women in church leadership and the “household codes” in other epistles are not timeless principles but instructions specific to the time they were written and to their original audience. He did not try to read gender equality back into the text, but observed that male headship and wifely submission were normal practices within the patriarchal cultures of that time. The timeless principle had to do with Christian men and women acting in a way that did not bring shame on the gospel in the eyes of a watching world. Because patriarchy itself is not the timeless principle, male headship and wifely submission have no place in an egalitarian culture. Mark’s days of thinking he was a complementarian were over.
We had been practicing egalitarians all along; we just didn’t know it. The road to that realization was hard and rocky, but the journey was worth every difficult step of the way. It has made our marriage richer and happier. There are those who have paid for this belief with their careers and friendships. We are deeply grateful to them for making our way easier.
A couple of weeks ago we had a meeting with one of the pastors of the church we attend. We met at a coffee shop that has two doors at its entrance. Mark opened the first one for me and I walked through. Without thinking anything about it, I opened and held the second door for him. The pastor watched us come in and was laughing as she said, “How egalitarian of you.” Evidently our journey to egalitarianism has concluded; we celebrate with joy!