When Gender Roles Don’t Work: How One Couple and Their Sons Became Egalitarians | CBE International

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When Gender Roles Don’t Work: How One Couple and Their Sons Became Egalitarians

Raising sons, defying role expectations, and finding freedom

We asked Jodi and Dave Hansen (Dave is a CBE board member) to reflect on their journey raising two sons, defying role expectations, and discovering the freedom of egalitarianism.

Jodi

“Push, Jodi, push!” the midwife encouraged as I struggled to deliver our baby’s big shoulders. So, I gathered all the strength left in my being, took a deep, fortifying breath, and pushed.

“It’s a boy!” the midwife announced as our child emerged into the world, and our lives were changed forever.

Though we’d anticipated this arrival for months, we were unprepared for the overwhelming love we felt when they placed that little, screaming person into our arms. Eighteen months later, another son was born and our family was complete. Now the parents of two boys, our lives, our hopes, and our prayers evolved accordingly. We wanted our sons to be loving and kind and gentle (Gal. 5:22–23). We prayed they’d become faithful, eager ambassadors for Jesus Christ in the world.

Dave

It didn’t matter to me whether our babies were male or female. Like most new parents, I was overwhelmed with love for each of my newborn sons, and I set out to show them my affection. I grew up in a very traditional, complementarian family and my parents practiced very traditional roles. I don’t believe that I was pushed into becoming a hyper-masculine “man’s man,” but, my family was rather stoic and rarely physically affectionate.

In early adulthood, I realized that I wanted something different for my boys. I didn’t care how big they got; I wanted to be a dad that hugged them. Moreover, I wanted our sons to always know that our family was a safe place emotionally; that they could express the wide gamut of human emotion without judgment.

Jodi

As excited as we were about our precious sons, their births couldn’t have been more poorly timed. Dave was attending graduate law school, and we would have preferred to wait until after he finished to start a family. But that was not God’s plan. Fortunately, I had a well-paying job as a nurse manager that kept the bills paid while Dave was in school.

The plan was always for me to eventually stay home with the children. The Bible was clear on that. Or at least, the interpretation of the Bible in our complementarian church was clear: women should be workers at home while men were to be good providers for their families. Our situation was not the ideal, so we labored to put “the better way” into motion as soon as possible. But despite our best intentions, plan B quickly evolved into plan C and then D.

Dave entered the legal field, working long hours for less pay than I was making in healthcare. After a year of juggling two demanding professions while raising a toddler and a preschooler, we decided Dave would scale back to assume the role of primary parent, allowing me to take advantage of the opportunities for advancement that kept falling into my lap. It just seemed the best course for our family.

The only problem was that our church made it clear in sermons, Bible studies, passive aggressive comments, and even direct emails to us, that the wife was responsible for the home and children and should not be the primary breadwinner. We were conflicted, but the boys were thriving; our work/life balance was sustainable; the household was in order; and our income was good. We reasoned that if one of us was home, that was what mattered. But, we always faced some scrutiny as the only family in church who was financially supported by a woman.

Dave

I enjoyed my years as the primary parent. I liked spending so much time with our children. I worked hard to teach them good manners and did my best to demonstrate respect for their mother and other women with whom they saw me interact. I never excused or celebrated their propensity to wrestle each other in public by saying, “boys will be boys.”

Though our chosen home situation worked for us, our church found it troubling and my masculinity questionable. We often became the subject of hushed criticisms because I didn’t “lead” my family in the expected way of our subculture.

I was supposed to be the breadwinner, the spiritual leader, the resident theologian, a man’s man. The pressure was tremendous! Some of the more common subtle, and not to subtle, criticisms I heard over the years were:

“You and your wife are engaging in role reversals, which is very difficult.” (Stated with deep concern for how hard it must be for me to live this way.)

“Why does he drive that p**sy car?” (referring to our family’s Mini Cooper).

“You’re such a metro-sexual!” (always said in a joking way to hide the degrading intent).

“You need to get your wife under control!” (Often stated after a church meeting if Jodi asked questions about church budgets or leadership initiatives).

Jodi

When the boys entered school, Dave became the full-time administrator of the Christian school they attended and I continued to ride wave after wave of good career opportunities. Now that we were both working full-time outside the home, I doubled down on homemaking responsibilities. Dave shared in many of the household duties, but I took ownership of this aspect of our lives. I made sure the staff at the school saw my kids and husband eating nutritious and creative lunches lovingly prepared by me—before I left on a business trip.

On Sunday afternoons, we would often invite other families over after church to eat and talk theology and I was careful to demonstrate to our church and Christian school friends that my house was clean and my cooking was delicious.

Yeah, I was bringing home the bacon (and wrapping it around blue cheese stuffed dates!) but the head of our household had delegated that role to me, I reassured our church friends. I remember one Sunday afternoon, a church elder looked up from his honored seat at our table as I served him a sumptuous plate of food to comment, “I know you have a job and all, but you really do get submission.”

Dave

Over time, the disconnect between our lives and the complementarian framework of our church and Christian school led me to engage in dysfunctional behaviors. Instead of being a father who made it safe for my sons to express all kinds of emotions like I’d always hoped, I checked out emotionally in my marriage and family. Unbelievably, our church judged my emotional distance and dysfunctional behavior to be positive! Most of our friends still didn’t understand our non-traditional lifestyle, but I became known as a level-headed asset to the community—even if I didn’t drive a truck or muscle car.

Despite the approval of our friends, I was miserable inside. But, all our close relationships were tied to our church and Christian school, and to question the very rigid male and female roles was simply not possible. Jodi and I both knew the social cost would be too great to our family.

In 2008, the male privilege driving so much dysfunction in our lives hit home. Our marriage unraveled. Jodi had known for years that the dysfunction was rooted in a patriarchal system that forced people into roles that often made no sense. She recognized that complementarianism didn’t foster true love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our most intimate relationships. It took me a little longer to catch on.

Jodi

By 2008, I was done. I was tired of serving in a church that minimized the God-ordained gifts of women and instead pitted us against each other in a twisted game of who was the best wife and mother. I was tired of living in a sub-culture that rubber-stamped the broader culture’s toxic views about male privilege and masculinity with a Bible verse. I was tired of being married to an entitled husband who took the benefits of my striving for granted. I was tired of working so hard to make our messed-up marriage look good to people who incessantly promoted male headship. I was done! So I wrestled with God for the next year and then did what any reasonable woman in crisis would do: I went to seminary.

Seminary was the lifeboat that saved our family when I was ready to jump ship from all that our marriage had become. Seminary was where I came to understand the biblical view of God’s design for men and women to serve together in church and the home. It’s where I found the courage to leave the complementarian church tradition where we had always worshipped and fellowshipped. Thankfully, Dave joined me in finding a new church with a long history of affirming equality between men and women. Seminary, and that season of deconstruction, changed everything for our family—including for the boys. But, radical change is never easy.

Dave

Initially, I left our old church not because I had become a committed egalitarian (I wasn’t) but because I knew down deep that our marriage couldn’t possibly survive in that context. As we had suspected, the cost was great. We lost our best friends and the tight-knight community in which our boys were raised. Despite its dysfunctions, the church community was our family, and leaving was painful. When I finally announced to a close friend and fellow elder that we were leaving our church, he angrily retorted, “So you’re just going to throw away 2,000 years of church history?!”, as if I was now the opposition and not the friend with whom he had spent hours laboring for the sake of our church and school.

It took getting away from that culture to see how damaging patriarchy really was. For the first time in my life, I examined the massive disconnect between our professed belief in male headship and our functionally egalitarian family life.  Eventually, I came to believe that equality among the sexes—from a theological and biblical perspective—was really God’s design all along.

Biblical equality finally made sense in my head. And then, about a year after leaving our old church, the truth hit my heart. . . hard.

Jodi and I returned to the church for a special service presided over by multiple pastors and leaders from the local region. I watched, grief-stricken, as a line of men and no women filed ceremoniously to the front. In that moment, I grasped the pain Jodi must have felt for all those years. I began to weep for all the harm I had unwittingly caused my wife and the women in our community.

And, what about my boys? They had been raised seeing male dominance normalized, and I was just now recognizing that message as dangerous to them. I had been blind to the hurt I caused their mother and other women in our community. Were they also blind to the power they held in our male-dominated families and churches? Would they abuse that power and harm the women in their lives too?

Jodi

At seventeen and nineteen, our boys witnessed their parents reject what they had been always taught about men and women by our church, their Christian school, and even our closest friends. Our desire for them to be ambassadors for Christ to the world took on a whole new dimension with our desire to see them embrace biblical gender equality.

But, our oldest was already off to college and our youngest on the way out the door. Right at the moment when the influence of parents often diminishes, we desired to teach our sons something new and life-altering. Could they embrace God’s design for men and women to co-serve and co-lead in church and home when they had been taught they were to be the heads of their households and leaders over women?

In those early years after such a radical shift in our understanding of marriage and gender roles, we would reflect on how we had raised our sons and often lament, “I wish we had a do-over.

Dave

But, God is good and as Jodi and I began to share our changing views, we were relieved to see the boys embrace them. Recently, we had conversations with each of them to ask how and why—despite the Christian culture in which they were raised—they came to their own belief in biblical gender equality.

Both of them noted that what they observed at home was foundational to their thinking. They saw their mother working (quite successfully!) in a “man’s world” and their father taking on many of the homemaking responsibilities. To them, this counter-cultural model was not only normal, it was logical. They recognized easily that a man or a woman can clean the house and cook a meal. Why should those responsibilities fall only on women? Likewise, they observed a woman who was just as capable in the business world as any man. So why would that role and sphere be relegated to men? 

Neither openly questioned the more “traditional” roles prescribed by our churches when they were growing up. Yet, as adults they expressed that the stereotypes just weren’t consistent with their experience.

Both also observed that the married couples who had the most positive and healthy relationships were the couples that didn’t follow the prescribed roles taught in their church. Our youngest son, Cole, rightly stated, “The intention of complementarian ideology is not to thwart emotional vulnerability, it just does. Because any ideology that asserts authority as its primary goal is going to thwart vulnerability.”

I was surprised—and saddened—to hear our oldest, Chase, say, “I saw church and theology compartmentalized from the rest of life. There was always a tension between church and life. Mom was only able to live into her gifting outside of church.”

Jodi

When Dave and I had left our church over the issue of gender roles, Chase had already moved out of the home. However, he noted that seeing his parents question the rigid teachings of his upbringing made it acceptable for him to question it as well. He shared that he wasn’t sure if his faith would have survived had we not made it okay to search and question. 

But, what most encouraged us was to hear our sons articulate—in separate conversations and almost verbatim—that their biggest problem with complementarian theology was that they did not witness it promoting the Fruit of the Spirit or Christ-like character in its practitioners.

Dave

Both of our sons wound up marrying fiercely feminist women who are gifted in leadership. Both are committed to gender equality in their marriages, their community, their work, and their church. I was blown away when Chase and his wife, Andrea, chose to wash each other’s feet as part of their wedding ceremony while Cole and his wife, Jennifer, were adamant that their wedding ceremony would be officiated by a male and a female pastor together. And, both couples insisted that their parents—together—walk them down the aisle rather than having the bride’s father “give” the bride to her groom.

Now, when our family gathers, we are full of hugs, boisterous laughter, and sometimes even tears. All emotions are allowed. No one needs to suppress any part of their humanity in this family.

Jodi

We spent many years of our marriage and raised our sons in a church that sought to form men into manly Christian leaders and women into submissive followers. Thankfully, we realized that model didn’t make sense for our marriage or for our sons. God’s grace prevailed and we realized our hopes to raise men who are not only kind, gentle, and loving but who affirm strong women and God’s design of equality for us all.

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