Maybe You’re Not Really a Complementarian

I spent some time recently with a group of Christian moms. They are intelligent, strong, capable,  women. They work jobs, run small businesses, work in ministry, go to law school, have advanced degrees, and are juggling a million other challenges. Some of the moms have adult children with successful careers. Others have little kiddos in the house, and are managing the day-to-day joy and craziness of diapers, preschool, tantrums, and bath time.

We sat together talking, sharing, and praying. Over the course of the conversation, several different women stated that a husband is the “head of the household.” Each time it was mentioned, others nodded their agreement, and the conversation moved forward. I sat there thinking about the fact that this idea is not found anywhere in the Bible. Scripture never states that the husband is the head of the household. Yet many Christians who have spent decades in churches and Bible studies toss this idea out like it’s gospel truth.

They then went on to talk about “managing” their households – and I wondered, if the husband is the head of the household, shouldn’t he be managing things? Perhaps He is the CEO and they are the managers. I’m not sure.

As the conversation moved on someone mentioned that, even though the husband is the head of the household, he often needs to be told what to do. The room nodded in agreement yet again. I sat confused yet again. If your husband “needs to be told what to do,” then who is actually the head of the household? Perhaps the person who is “managing” it.

Finally, one woman bragged about the success of her grown children. She was a lovely, vibrant, entertaining woman. And her children sound like truly remarkable people, who I would love to know. She mentioned that her daughter, a highly successful professional who has been recognized with awards in her field, travels the world for her full-time career, while her husband is a stay-at-home dad, who takes care of their baby. This woman sounds like a powerhouse. She sounds like someone I would love to talk to over coffee. And her husband sounds like a strong, supportive, and nurturing man, who must also be quite a powerhouse to keep pace with his partner in life and love. I don’t know these people, and yet, I admire them and their choices and accomplishments. And as I looked around at the smiling, nodding moms, I could see that most people felt the same as I did. So I wondered again, aren’t these the same women who just stated that a husband should be the head of the household? If that doesn’t mean “managing” the household, and it doesn’t mean being the “bread winner,” then what does it mean?

I began to feel like I was sitting in a stew of cognitive dissonance.

As I sat there sharing a piece of life with these women, these sisters in Christ, I started wondering to myself if they had ever given any serious thought to their views on gender roles.

I’ve seen this on many different occasions – women who proclaim with their lips that their husbands are their authorities – but live their lives as true equals and partners. They are practical egalitarians. Their actual lived theology doesn’t match their proclaimed theology. This is often because egalitarianism works better. And whether people realize it or not, healthy marriages tend to be functionally egalitarian.

Many Christian women have been told that they must believe their husband is the head of the household. They must lovingly submit to his authority. Although they know, in reality, this doesn’t work 100% of the time, so they are comfortable saying things like, “he needs to be told what to do,” or “he needs to be told how to lead,” or the ever popular, and extremely manipulative, “the wife is the neck that turns the head.” But I truly believe that these women know in their hearts and souls, that they function better as a team, as a partnership, as parts of the same unified body – not in authority over each other, but as co-leaders who need each other. But because so many churches have drawn a line connecting gender roles to the gospel, so many people believe that it’s necessary to claim this view of male authority, even if they don’t live it.

Groups like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Acts 29 have tied gender roles to the gospel. CBMW recently released a new statement on human sexuality that reiterates their view that one must affirm gender roles, including the authority of men over women, in order to be a Christian. When gender roles and male authority are presented as necessary to Christian faith, you will find people who preach them because they believe they have to, but find ways to live around them, because they don’t always work.

But the gospel is not gender roles. The gospel is not about human sexuality. The gospel is not legalism or rules. The gospel is the truth of Jesus Christ who lived, died, resurrected, and will return. And we are saved by grace through faith in this Jesus. We are not saved by our views on male authority, or baptism, or human sexuality, or eschatology, or anything else under the sun.

So for the sake of the women who are stuck in abusive authoritarian marriages, please, let’s stop making claims that don’t match our lives. If we have good, healthy marriages that function as an equal partnership, let’s own it. Let’s yell it from the roof tops. Let’s proclaim God’s goodness in the gift of these marriages. Let’s celebrate our awesome husbands who partner with us in life. Let’s cheer for the successful career women, the successful career men, the stay-at-home moms, and the stay-at-home dads.

I suspect that, if more Christians with healthy marriages were honest about how they function…

Maybe they aren’t really complementarians.

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13 thoughts on “Maybe You’re Not Really a Complementarian”

  1. “a stew of cognitive dissonance”

    This sums it up well. I’ve used the same term a couple of times when writing about this topic. There are a LOT of Christians living egalitarian marriages but they won’t admit it because the price is too great to pay. There are a number of very bright, articulate comp women out there who keep their allegiance to comp for some reason, but I know there has to be some serious cognitive dissonance going on. But, again, it’s a big leap to make when you know you will have to leave friends, church, and denomination if you realize you are actually an egalitarian.

    1. “the price is too great to pay.” YES! I can understand why so many people are unwilling to even explore the issue. Churches need to stop tying gender roles to the gospel.

  2. A complementarian home may look egalitarian to an outsider; any healthy, loving relationship would not show a blazingly clear example of one with all the authority and one who simply follows orders. But no one outside that home knows what discussions have held by the couple as to how the husband will exercise headship. No one knows if he has said, “You’re better with figures than I am. How about you handling our banking. We can go over things on (days/dates).” Or if he has said, “I can be absent-minded about x; could you remind me about it when needed?”
    And does “Sometimes I need to tell him how to lead” mean “He doesn’t do things the way I would” or that the man has a different time table? It could well be that he is simply not thinking about decisions that need to be made or plans that need to be put together, but that is far from the total possibilities.
    And of course both men and women are prone to kid about, and magnify, their spouse’s foibles.

    1. So, if a husband asks for help or defers to his wife (because she is better at something) he is leading … but if a wife asks for help or defers to her husband, she is submitting? Am I understanding you correctly?

  3. …the ever popular, and extremely manipulative, “the wife is the neck that turns the head.”

    You nailed this!!! Powerful post Kelly and all of it so true

    1. Thank you. I don’t think people mean to be manipulative when they use that expression. It’s born out of having to deal with a hierarchy that doesn’t really work. But all the same, it’s not the best expression 🙂

  4. What I have seen in practice is that most of the time essentially ANYTHING between spouses is accepted by comp. pastors or teachers as long as the spouses are willing to say the right words and their marriage is working. There can be a rare sermon or two about spouses being comp. in words but not deeds or similar wording, but that is usually stated in abstract terms so that no specific couple can be identified as having a questionable comp. marriage.

  5. his is so good!

    Reminds me of the lament of well known complementarian leader, Russell Moore: “What I fear is that we have many people in evangelicalism who can check off “complementarian” on a box but who really aren’t living out complementarian lives. Sometimes I fear we have marriages that are functionally egalitarian, because they are within the structure of the larger society. If all we are doing is saying “male headship” and “wives submit to your husbands,” but we’re not really defining what that looks like . . . in this kind of culture, when those things are being challenged, then it’s simply going to go away.”

  6. I think it only looks like cognitive dissonance when you operate from an individualistic mindset (ie. more western) Both egalitarian and complementarian ideas are often expressed through ‘who’ has the power rather than environments that are more communal that express decision on BOTH a community position (round but not democratic) and final decision (often laying in the hands of ‘elders’ or an elder). This being dyadic culture (which is more like the common biblical context communally)

    If western thinkers can manage to shake the individualistic mindset then I think it can be seen that both ‘competing ideas’ are about straight lines that are firstly about the individuals role and authority rather than the whole.

    No doubt manipulative sin and oppressive sin are seen in these but if we would try to out serve one another in marriage and Church rather than out position each other one like Christ did then we would thrive. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ in viewing dynamic community or marriage actually becomes something that tells us we are too trapped in a narrow individualistic sense of relationships.

    Ps. I am more egal than comp but find both have problematic starting points from a cultural point of view.

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