Why I Have A Complimentary Egalitarian Marriage

May 11, 2012

What kind of marriage do you have?

Among some realms of Christian blog-land, you’ll see a lot of discussion on marriage.

The question: is your marriage “complimentarian” or “egalitarian?”

At stake, judging by the ferocity of the discussions, is the very sanctity of marriage.  I can’t think of one thing that gets Christians more hot and bothered about other peoples’ relationships, (other than maybe whether the couple in love have matching genitals or not.)

The way the question is usually posed, the “complimentarians” are old-fashioned, evangelical patriarchs who favor imposing artificial hierarchies to keep control over women.  That sentence was so full of buzzwords, it even made me a little bit mad.

Meanwhile, the complimentarians paint a picture of egalitarians as being in rebellion against God’s plan and being a bunch of bra-burning liberals.

And, as usual, the whole debate has become an exercise in missing the point.  If we actually defined “complimentarian” and “egalitarian” correctly, there would be no more discussion.

Who Is a Complimentarianism?

Who are the most prominent “complimentarians” today?

Some people would point to Mark Driscoll and John Piper.  Both have said some pretty controversial things about men and women.  Piper most recently said that Christianity has a distincively “masculine” feel.

The debate becomes pretty easy with caricatures like that representing one side.  The problem is they don’t.  Like Pat Robertson not representing all of evangelical Christianity, you can’t frame the debate by what two guys say about women.

Housework Is Not the Point

Then, complimentarianism is painted as a hierarchy, more like the relationship between a boss and employee.  It’s easy to use this as a straw man, because no married people live this way.  Men and women in healthy relationships make decisions together.  They communicate.  They share the work.

Sounds like everyone, even the complimentarians are actually rather egalitarian.

So does that mean that egalitarianism wins?

No, it means figuring out who does the dishes and who makes the money and who changes diapers has nothing to do with having a healthy marriage.  The Bible doesn’t say anything about how men and women should run their households.  You’d almost think God didn’t give a crap about it.

So when we let the debate focus on those things, we’re again missing the point.

Complimentarian or Egalitarian?

I’ll look at myself and my wife for a minute.

My wife has ovaries.  I do not.  I didn’t tell her to have ovaries, nor do I wish I had ovaries.  Does this make us complimentarian or egalitarian?

I am good at writing.  My wife struggles with it.  She is enjoying learning how to cook and bake professionally, though I am capable of making my own dinner.  Complimentarian or egalitarian?

I mow the grass every weekend.  She works most Saturdays.  Complimentarian or egalitarian?

She cries more than I do.  I get fired up about politics.  Complimentarian or egalitarian?

It’s hard to tell, isn’t it?

Forced Equality?

This is where both sides miss the point.    When the Bible says that there is “no male and female,” that men and women are equal in the sight of God, it doesn’t mean they must therefore be the same.  My wife and I are very different people.  We were born that way, and we can’t change it.  Some differences are based on gender, others not.  We compliment each other.

And the ways in which we compliment each other didn’t have to be forced.  We were both born free to find our own strengths and weaknesses and figure out how to function best as a couple.  Just like I don’t force my wife to submit to some kind of “gender role,” we also don’t force each other to be “equal” in all things for which we aren’t gifted.

So a truly complimentary relationship is egalitarian and a truly egalitarian relationship will naturally be complimentary.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go tell my wife to make me a sandwich.

What do you think?  Is one biblical and one isn’t?  Or is it neither because God doesn’t care whether women work or men do dishes?  Or is it somewhere in the middle?  And if you really believe I need my wife to make a sandwich for me, then you are mistaken.

27 responses to Why I Have A Complimentary Egalitarian Marriage

  1. Or is it neither because God doesn’t care whether women work or men do dishes?

    Yes, that one. I remember confiding in a friend in the early years of our marriage when I felt like I was doing more housework than my wife and getting frustrated. He chimed in “Yeah, and some jobs (like washing dishes) just aren’t meant to be done by men.” According to him, men feel funny when their hands get all dish soapy or something. Sigh. This ridiculous conversation needs to go away.

    Oh, and as a result, I stopped confiding in this friend and others like him. I kept feeling like they were trying to impose some kind of shame on me when it wasn’t warranted. If we all pursued serving each other to the best of our abilities we wouldn’t need to pull the “God told you to do this job” card. Now I gotta go wash something. And that’s okay.

    • I kept thinking along the same lines. I know plenty of women who can cry and can also get fired up over politics. I’m one of them. I have a nephew who is a far better cook than I’ll ever be, and he’s also good at all the stereotypical guy stuff.

      All God wants is for each of us to serve one another in the manner in which He has gifted us.

    • Amen. Isn’t that “loving our wives” as Paul taught?

  2. My husband and I have a marriage. No labels attached. For the past 10 years it’s worked out pretty well for us.

    I had never heard of “complementarianism” and “egalitarianism” (or many other “-isms” for that matter) until I started spending time around the Christian blogosphere.

    Truth be told, I think I was happier not knowing.

  3. I haven’t heard much of the arguments, mainly because I don’t live in the US and I pick what I read. That said, I think the perfect (if you can have a perfect) marriage is one in which the husband and wife COMPLETE each other. So I guess they do compliment each other. And for the most part, my husband and I do.

    And now I have to go look up ‘egalitarian’, (seriously). :)

    • Back again, and I guess as well as being complimentary, it is also egalitarian. We complete each other.

  4. Well Matt you managed to be both so you won’t get criticized at all for this post! Maybe you should go into politics??

  5. “hen the Bible says that there is ‘no male and female,’ that men and women are equal in the sight of God, it doesn’t mean they must therefore be the same.”

    Amen!

  6. Great stuff!

    I love how my wife and I compliment each other. I’m the “man of the house”, but my wife and I make all big decisions together.

    She’s an amazing cook. I do the dishes.
    She hates cleaning the bathrooms. I hate yard work. We swap.
    She’s better at fixing cars. I’m better at fixing computers.

    We are equal in our relationship and like you said, how we compliment each other isn’t forced. It just happened (by God’s grace).

  7. “Men and women in healthy relationships make decisions together.”
    Ha!!!
    Your qualifier is your logic fail. You have to have healthy man and healthy woman in order to have a healthy relationship.
    Without that, we all do the best we can, while trying to get ‘healthier’.

  8. Hi Matt,

    We’ve only been married 43 years so we are still learning the ropes.

    Complimentarian or egalitarian? Gee, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my wife.

    John

    • She’s the one that keeps tabs on those things.

    • Shirley and I are going to celebrate our 45th later this year, John. I asked her which band we fall into. With her usual cut-right-to-the-heart-of-the-matter astuteness she said: “Why are you spending so much time reading blog posts? Get back to work, dear” — or something like that.

      Nevertheless, excellent post, Matt. Now I’ll get back to work.

      Gary

  9. After 32+ years, I completely agree on making decisions together. The few times one or the other of us has made a decision that the other person totally disagreed with, the decision-maker ended up apologizing afterward. Even when it worked out ok, the rift that resulted wasn’t worth having our own way.

    We once did a study on the word often translated as “help meet” in Genesis. When I realized that the same word usually referred to God helping us, it sure put a new spin on things!

  10. The editor in me can’t help myself from (hopefully graciously) pointing out that it should be “complementarian” rather than your current spelling, simply because your statements have an entirely different meaning otherwise. Albeit a good one. It’s good that you compliment your wife! Helps the wheels of marriage run more smoothly!

    That said, loved the post, Matt. And I’m not even married. But if I was, I’d be a complegalitarian for sure.

  11. Amen to both sides missing the point entirely. Sometimes I think it’s all just word games.

    “The Bible doesn’t say anything about how men and women should run their households. You’d almost think God didn’t give a crap about it.” Hahaha – almost! :)

    I think marriages are a lot like parenting. There are too many factors – personalities of every person involved, the culture they’re in, how each person grew up, what their goals are – to make a one-size-fits-all “correct” way to do marriage (or parenting). You find what works, seek to honor God, and GET ON WITH LIVING LIFE. We’re getting too hung up on how-to manuals and stereotypes.

    Thanks for this post!

  12. Humans always seem to want a hierarchy. The Israelite did it by asking for king. We have misinterpreted the submit to your husbands verse. But God doesn’t hierarchies, he want lovers and servants. He wants folks that would abandon their position for the sake of another.

    We always want someone to be in charge so that we don’t have to take the heat if something goes wrong.

    My wife and I took a list of chores and duties that a household requires. It including everything from cleaning toilets to changing diapers and paying bills. We divided it up in to ones she does, ones I do, ones we share, and ones we do together. The rest we pay someone to do. When one is too busy or sick, the other jumps in.

    She is the most amazing woman, mom, CEO and friend. I couldn’t have done any better, and she probably couldn’t have doe any worse.

  13. I have never tried to worry about whether or not our marriage fits into a particular breadbox. We have to do what works for us, and works for our marriage.

    Case in point: we have a joint checking account. My parents maintain separate accounts, and cannot fathom how we manage to not drive each other bonkers. I manage the money and balance the accounts and pay the bills. My parents divide up the bills, and I will often hear them tell each other that they “owe” the other for something, because whatever Mom just bought should have come out of Dad’s money, but she didn’t have Dad and/or his credit card with her. Or Mom announces that Dad just bought this for her or me or whatever (Dad just kinda smiles, nods and capitulates). Which marriage is healthier for their fiscal management approach? Both. My parents’ separate checking accounts keep them happily married. Ours works, because I have my finger on the money at all times, and our bills actually get paid.

    My nephew once told my husband (he lived with us for about six months about seven years ago) that he didn’t understand why the fact that I, erm, used a great deal of volume in our…discussions…and that he didn’t think he could ever have a wife who was like me. My husband pointed out two things: one, that I’m better at toning down the volume than I used to be, but two (and most importantly), he NEVER has to wonder what I’m feeling.

    For the life of me, I can’t imagine what marriage would be like if we didn’t complement each other. The Bible talks about Eve being a “helpmeet,” not just a “helpmate,” for Adam. That implies more of a partnership than a boss/grunt relationship. I look at my marriage, and I can so clearly see what God must have seen when we were together: where I’m weak, my husband has his strengths, and vice versa. Where neither of us hold the majority of the skills, we have God to pick up the slack. It’s very cool.

    The previous pastor my husband served under did not like me. I was not “submissive” enough. (Basically, I had a mind, used it, and spoke it.) But when we make all the major decisions together, why do I have to be a subservient schlump? I don’t. Every time–EVERY time–we have to make a major decision, we sit down to discuss it and we are usually already of like minds. Are we going to donate to this charity? Yes…and the dollar amount we’ve each come up with will match exactly.

    In our 16-year marriage, only a handful of times has my husband put his foot down and said “It’s gonna be this way because I’m the husband.” I’m pretty sure it only happens about once every five years or so.

    And every. last. time. it happens, he does it because it’s the right decision, to the benefit of our marriage and our family, and it’s the decision I would have wanted to make but didn’t want to or could not handle the emotional fallout from that decision. (Family dynamics. Oy.) So, he would play the heavy, make the call, and I could rest easy, knowing he would shoulder the burden of whatever potential nastiness could result.

    I love him for that.

    Together, we are so much more than what we are on our own.

    But even he is smart enough to realize that Jeff Allen was right: Happy wife, happy life.

  14. We have been married almost 14 years. Most decisions made are discussed by us, though I think we have carved out areas of “expertise” where we can make decision independently. My husband is the final decision-maker, especially when it comes to finances or time commitments because he is in charge. There have been times he has made a decision that has not made me happy. Sometimes, he has been right and I have told him “You were right.” Sometimes I have been right and he has told me “You were right. Let’s do it your way.” In all cases, God worked to develop our patience with and trust of each other, making our marriage stronger. We have no official gender based division of labor though he enjoys the outside work more than me. Cleaning the house and picking up is divided up among our WHOLE family, which fits neither category.

    To God be the glory for how smoothly (though not perfectly) He has knit us together, regardless of what label others attach to it.

  15. Great post! I’m an compligetarian too. Here’s the thing… I don’t know anyone who is an egalitarian in this debate who wouldn’t say all of this. I love the book Discovering Biblical Equality… it’s subtitle is “Complimentarity without Hierarchy”… that just about says it all.

  16. I was on vacation, so I’m late to respond, but I love your fresh, funny, practical, and logical take on this issue Matt.

    As I commented on another blog post of another big-time blogger who was also debating this issue–Marriage is a holy union and filled with the mystery of God. Forcing labels upon it does nothing but weaken the image of Christ and the Church represented in marriage.

  17. I would think dealing with the high divorce rate would be the biggest issue for marriage in the church. I think the best way to solve this issue is to make it a non issue. By this I mean everyone concentrate on their OWN marriage and stay out of everyone else’s.

  18. I’ve been married 34 years. We practice our marriage based on gifts. Whoever is gifted the most in ‘the subject at hand’ usually makes the decision. And we always refer to it ‘the practice’ of marriage. We are all sinners, and therefore not perfect, we can only ‘practice’ and try for perfection. We don’t see each other as female and male. We see each other as weaker, stronger, more caring, more generous, more adventerous, more peaceful. We uplift each other as Christians first. As human first. Then, we practice marriage, LOL.

    We tend to just call our marriage “oneness”.