I have never written on this topic before and I’m pretty sure I know why. Because a, no one has asked me to (ha!), and b, it’s a hot-button issue (but oh well).
For some reason though, I have some thoughts these days and I’m feeling weirdly fired up about it.
For those of you who do not believe in God or follow Scripture or are part of a church or evangelical culture, you will more than likely not understand any of this. Why would a woman quote-unquote follow a man, submit to a man, do what a man tells her to do? I say this with all due respect, if this is where you fall, feel free to read this but these words are not for you. These words are for women who are trying to live faithfully because of their love for Jesus.
Oh, is this ever so complicated! I cannot possibly cover even a fraction of this subject in one writing, but I’ll share a few random thoughts.
Before I say anything: I realize that what I’m about to say is very much more based on my personal and painful experience and my gut instinct then it is based on a deep study into Greek and Hebrew. So, please keep that in mind as you read. I am literally calling myself out here. With that said, I have been trying to love and follow Jesus and read Scripture for over 36 years, I have the mind of Christ, and I have the Holy Spirit dwelling within me. Okay, here we go.
OML, also, people who genuinely love Jesus and sincerely study Scripture land on all different places on this continuum. I don’t think this is a one way is right, the other way is wrong kinda thing. (But I could even be wrong about that.)
Before I met Jesus at the age of fifteen, I would’ve considered myself a feminist with my definition of feminism simply being men and women are equal.
When I met Jesus and started following him and started going to church and to two youth groups, I still would’ve considered myself a feminist, as in: men and women are equal.
But as I started hearing things about dating and marriage, words and phrases like “men are the head” and “wives are to submit” started popping up. And I didn’t quite understand it all but I was new to all of the Jesus and Bible stuff and I was a sponge and so I soaked it all in.
I’m not a theologian. But from what I understand, egalitarians and complementarians both claim that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. But where they differ – or where they claim to differ – is that egalitarians believe that men and women should just live out of their giftedness in the home and in the church (I’m super simplifying things here) and complementarians believe that men are the leaders and can do all the things and women have a cap on what they can do in the home and in the church. Also, from what I understand, there are verses to back up either stance.
I knew one day I wanted to get married and have children.
I knew by then that I wanted a husband who loved Jesus too.
And so, I figured to do that, I had to go along with the whole submission thing.
I remember my youth pastor’s wife putting it this way: “When submission is working right, you don’t even really know it’s happening, because your husband is loving both God and you so well you just want to follow his lead.”
That resonated with my (hadn’t-even-been-in-a-relationship-yet) teenaged-heart. I felt I could get on board with that. How hard could it be??
But, as you might imagine, there can be some huge cracks in this hypothesis if, you know, your husband isn’t loving God or you well, or is actually hurting you.
Add to it that, I took a bunch of spiritual gifts tests and found out that leadership was one of my top gifts. Okay, so, what does that even mean? I can serve in church leadership but only over anyone under eighteen and the humans with ovaries? And I need to kinda squelch my leadership at home because how would that make my husband feel who wasn’t gifted with leadership but is called to lead?
I was trying to start each day with Jesus. I was taking myself through Bible studies. I was in small group Bible studies. I was leading small group Bible studies. I was starting and leading ministries. I was putting myself in accountability relationships. I was trying to love and obey and follow the Lord with my whole heart and mind and soul. (And he was not.) I knew the ins and outs of running our home, and I was crazy organized and gifted administratively, and I knew my children better than anyone, and yet…
Because he had what he had and I had a uterus, I wasn’t allowed to pay the bills, I had to ask if I could put something in the shopping cart, I had to ask permission before taking my children to the doctor.
My marriage was, in part, a complex psychological nightmare with complementarianism and its twin anchors of ‘husbands are the head’ / ‘wives are to submit’ that empowered my then-husband to control under the guise of lead her and enabled me to take the abuse under the umbrella of follow him.
No wonder I have a bitter taste in my mouth over the ideology of complementarianism. (And no wonder it makes me nervous for so many women in my former shoes.)
In The Power of a Praying Wife (a book that I prayed through a gazillion times), Stormie Omartian leads us wives to pray this: “Enable him to be the head of the home as you made him to be; and show me how to support and respect him as he rises to that place of leadership.”
Okay. Except of course, a) if he doesn’t rise to that place of leadership, and b) if it’s really hard to respect him because he’s into porn, or lying to you, or cutting you down, or bullying you, or drinking too much, or not praying or not reading the Word or not doing the laying down his life part.
No, not except if those things happen. Still respect and support and submit no matter if those things are happening.
And yet, I would drop hints of some of these things, first to women at church, then to men, and implore: If he were loving Jesus with his whole heart and laying his life down for me and he weren’t doing this and that and this and that, I WOULD FOLLOW HIM TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH. But that is not our reality. How do I submit to our reality?! Truly. Tell me. Tell me how to do it and I will do it, rule-following, Jesus-loving teacher’s pet that I was.
And so they did. They told me how to follow him (because, in fact, how you live your life, wife, could actually stop him from doing all those bad things, was implied more times than I care to remember), so:
Pray for him more.
Criticize him less.
Nag him less.
(In other words, shut up more.)
Have sex more.
Serve him more.
Make your home a refuge for him to come home to.
Done and done and done and done.
And yet, no changes. (Rephrase: not no changes…a worsening…because worsening is what happens when these things are left unchecked.)
But repeat anyway.
Keep doing your part, hurting wife.
God will deal with him. (Hmm, but will He?? I’m begging Him to but He doesn’t seem to be…)
This is where complementarianism can become problematic: it puts the abused / lied to / controlled / cheated-on / anything-bad-happening-to wife in a very vulnerable position, calling her to forgive (sure) and forget (ugh no) and keep ducking her head and nodding yes and taking what she’s getting. It’s not okay. It’s just not okay. Because, for one thing, it takes away her God-given agency to say no to mistreatment and sin. (I can hear them now, “Well, now, of course, you’re not to go along with him if he wants you to sin…” OML.)
(Another side-note: abuse is not limited to complementarian marriages; I can think of a few examples of men who claimed to be flaming egalitarians who wielded their power to sexually abuse women, and I can think of many complementarian marriages that are loving and healthy; so, this is an equal opportunity issue.)
Until, well, many, many years and many, many prayers and many, many tears later, I was released (by God and a group of church leaders).
And we divorced.
And I was set free.
And I was single.
And I had some time to think about all of this.
And I came to the conclusion that I would choose more wisely next time around, if there were a next time around.
And that I would focus more on the submit to one another verse that precedes wives, submit to your husbands. (Now, a confessional and cautionary side-note: we are not to cherry-pick which verses we like and which verses we do not like. And yet, we are to take into account the whole of Scripture. We are to realize that Scripture is part instruction manual, part historical document, part poetry, all love story between God and his creation, and we are to look at it through the lens of when it was written and the cultural context.) (But also, that verse precedes the other two for a reason, it is foundational to the other two.) (Also, though I absolutely believe all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for instruction, we don’t still make animal sacrifices and most women don’t wear head-coverings in church and…we take Scripture and apply it to our now. Also, I think about how Jesus interacted with women: how he talked to them, how he taught them, how he healed them, how he yielded to them, how he forgave them, how he cried with them, how he elevated them, how he shared news with them, how I never got the sense from Jesus that he ever said to a woman, ‘not now’, or ‘not you’, or ‘be quiet‘.)
And it’s not that I’d never submit ever again because I am woman hear me roar,
and it’s not that I would find a man who wouldn’t do all those bad things,
and it’s not that I would find a man who did all the good things I thought he should do and just fall in line with what I wanted.
But maybe I could exhale a bit. Maybe I could let go a bit.
Because though I was once told that I shouldn’t waste my time or money bothering to continue my biblical education in a formal way because I was already the highest I could go as a woman at our church (yes, I was told this – a memory that just recently resurfaced), and though I once told a leader that I was “all in” with complementarianism after he gave me a book to try to convince me of its merits and “rightness”, here’s where I’ve landed in my humanness and through my admittedly-painful lens:
I believe men and women are equal.
I believe GOD created men and women equal and we are equally loved and equally gifted.
I believe men and women should live out of their gifts, whatever those are, wherever God opens doors for them.
I believe husbands and wives should lovingly and respectfully be their God-given selves within a marriage AND
lovingly and respectfully let each other be themselves AND
lovingly and respectfully serve each other AND
lovingly and respectfully treat each other with kindness and compassion and empathy and tenderness AND
lovingly and respectfully pray for each other AND
lovingly and respectfully take care of their own responsibilities spiritually and physically and emotionally and relationally AND
lovingly and respectfully put the other first.
Side note: I take care of the bills now. Because I’m capable. And I’m the one with the laptop. And I put whatever I want into the grocery cart. Because my husband isn’t my boss and he’s generous of spirit. And I go to the doctor when I need to. Because I’m a grown woman who is empowered to take care of herself. And I set the thermostat because my husband wants me to be comfortable in our home and I don’t stand in front of it begging Jesus to make it go back down to the appointed temperature. And I don’t have to literally do a show-and-tell of my Target purchases justifying why we need Q-Tips. And the dishes aren’t rearranged in the dishwasher because I don’t know how to load a dishwasher and the washing machine isn’t unplugged with the promise it will be plugged back in once I read the manual and…(oh, and I actually buy less now that I’m not monitored and controlled. Funny what freedom and respect can do to a person, to a marriage.) And I don’t cry anymore. And I don’t cower anymore. And I’m just not scared anymore.
I’m me now.
(To be clear — so many parenthetical statements in this one! ha! — Richard is the main breadwinner and my full-time life’s work consists of being part coach/podcaster/writer/speaker, part 1950s housewife basically, part mother/grandma; but not because he has told me this is how it’s going to be, but because this is what works for us.)
About six months into our marriage, I said to Richard, “I just realized, you have never once told me what to do.”
And he said, “Why would I do that? We’re both in charge.”
And that has worked for us. It may not work for you. And you may radically disagree with me and with where I’ve landed. And you might even think I’m a heretic. (And God will deal with me if I’ve ended up on the wrong side of things on this issue.) And you can feel all those things about me. But this is working for us.
So, what does this all mean? What was my point??
If you are in a happy, healthy egalitarian marriage, kudos.
If you are in a happy, healthy complementarian marriage, that’s great.
Thank sweet baby Jesus and the grown One too, and give your husband a huge hug next time you see him.
If you’re a man and read all of these words and made it here, first of all, bless your heart. Secondly, no matter where you’d fall on the continuum, if you love God and if you love your girlfriend or fiancee or wife, I implore you…IMPLORE YOU…to learn to love her the way Jesus loves her. Treat her with respect. Ask her questions. Listen to her answers. Encourage her gifts. Pray for her. Ask her what she loves to do and then do it together. Open her doors. Hold her hand. Hold her gently. And do not control her. Do not tell her what to do. Do not squelch who God has made her to be. Maybe read one of the Gospels and make a list of ways Jesus loves people and then apply that to your relationship.
But if you are a woman in an unhealthy any kind of marriage, if you feel controlled, if you think there’s abuse, if there is addiction or mental illness or adultery and you don’t know what to do, start here. And know that you are not alone, and there are things you can do to get help.
If you’re in a hard marriage, Marriage Methods is for you.
If you’re remarried or considering it, here are some resources:
Second Time Around e-book
Remarriage Ready e-course
Remarriage Ref e-course
And if you haven’t checked out my podcast yet – All That to Say – you’re missing out on some really good conversations (like with my husband, friend and son) along with me riffing on everything from faith to marriage to divorce and empty nesting and menopause. Keepin’ it real, people!
I appreciate your realness so much! And your continuing commitment and love for Jesus our Lord.
Thank you, Melissa! So kind.
So. Much. This. I’m pretty sure your former husband and my former husband were twins. And, I just have to add that the phrase, “But did he hit you?” still makes me see red! Um, wouldn’t you be afraid if he broke the lock on one door and then started banging on the next door? That’s on top of all the things you mentioned for nearly 20 years. *Exhale! I’m ok now.* Thank you for sharing this. I have studied that Greek word for “submit,” and I’ve come to this same conclusion. I’ve also done a lot of studying on how God cares for the oppressed and the larger contexts of the discussions about divorce and marriage in the Scriptures. Marriage is not one-sided! And why would God give us gifts if he didn’t mean for us to use them? Ok, clearly I’ve got a lot to say on this subject, but I’ll stop for now (lol)!
Amen to all of this, Bethany!
Elisabeth I just want to thank you for saying what needs to be said. It needs not only to be said but to be clearly taught to as many women in the church as possible. This is what I desperately needed to hear for those 16 years of abuse in the hands of my late husband. The church at large need to stop misusing scripture to allow these things to go on in marriage. Right up to my husband’s death I believed I had no choice but to submit if I loved the Lord. This belief and teaching almost literally killed me and my children. I thank God for rescuing us.
I’m so sorry, Sarah. Grateful for God’s rescues.
My first husband had an affair and told me that he did it for us….he was “making sure” I was the one as we married so young. Is it bad that I was glad he did it? He was overpowering, chauvinistic and extremely condescending. After all, he was valedictorian and he married a dumbbell! His affair gave me the reason to leave. But he did not make it easy on me. Fought me for everything. He kept my grandma’s antique dishes, did not support his kids, etc. I have been happily remarried to a wonderful Christian man for over 26 years. We have 7 grandkids and bask in their love!
I’m so sorry, Pam. But grateful for your second chance.
I have tears in my eyes as I read this. Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for helping us all to live free lives–free from abuse and free from guilt.
Aww, sweet Alora. Thank you for these words.