Has anyone else heard from complementarians that it’s not the husband’s job to make his wife submit to him, that he’s just to lead with following Christ and a godly wife will follow? A godly wife will decide what submission to her husband means. The husband doesn’t tell the wife how to submit, and the wife doesn’t tell the husband how to lead. It doesn’t necessarily sound problematic in a vacuum, in a scenario with two loving, committed people.
Obviously, a husband can be abusive and manipulative, or “lead too strongly” (hyper headship, according to the folks trying to distance themselves from this sort of thing) and not give his wife a voice at all, but what happens when the wife is submitting too much to a guy who’s just not much of a leader? Where does she get the corrective balance, then?
Even in our early marriage years I don’t ever recall thinking in terms of “I want this, or we need this, and she should submit”. But what usually did happen (to my guilt and shame) was that I’d ask, and she’d give without question. She’d give without question, so I’d expect without asking. This was in just about every facet of life. I was a bad leader by comp standards I’m sure, but I was benefiting (for lack of a better word) from the rotten fruit of patriarchy in my wife’s life. Pleasing God meant keeping me happy in her mind. My coasting along through marriage was making her life at times a mental hell, and she did it for me. My wife’s idea of submission didn’t match up with mine at all, and we never really discussed it. That communication issue in itself is a problem, of course, but both of our religious/home backgrounds played strongly into us having communication issues that we didn’t even realize – we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We didn’t know we needed help in this area. We thought we were fine, and this is just how things are.
What this highlights for me is that even if comp doctrine can be “done right”, unless you just happen to find the perfect match of personalities and experience, the culture and pressure that springs up around it is going to cause unique complications and problems one way or another. Especially if one or both spouses have abuse in their past, like we did. We both react towards the non-confrontational side, and it’s taken a lot of work on both our parts to really be honest with each other. A couple trying to be faithfully complementarian in the early days of a relationship, to my mind, will struggle to not be abusive, one way or another.
So that has been our experience. Let’s look at it more in depth. As I said, it doesn’t sound problematic on the surface, perhaps, but I think it is naïve, mainly for this reason: Even if I’m not telling my wife how to do her job, submission, *someone* or something out there is, or has.
My wife didn’t need me telling her to do things for our relationship to have problems. She had already been trained and reared to see her role in a certain way. In answer to the first question in this article, you might want to say something along the lines of, “A godly church community and literature.” Churches are communities, and a large part of this community is, almost by nature, usually families. Folks pass around theology, books, child-rearing tips, family doctor recommendations, home remedies, business opportunities – just about anything. Not to mention the actual preaching and teaching and peripheral ministries usually going on, including academies or seminaries. So, therefore, community peer pressure largely informs what is normal and accepted. Whether the husband is telling his wife how things are or not, she’s being molded by community, like we all tend to be. What’s the big deal then?
The problem lies in the intimacy that marriage should be. In an admirable effort to cut out the inherent conflict of interest that would be the husband telling his wife what her submission should look like (authority the Bible does not give husbands anyway), they also contribute to a divide in understanding between spouses that the whole “equal but separate roles” dynamic creates. There are few areas of life in a marriage where these roles don’t apply. And yet, instead of being able to just get to know each other freely over the course of our lives, there’s an invisible wall between us which is off the table of discussion, and our understanding of each other is going to be partly based on the community around us (including gender/marriage theology and stereotypes) instead of each other as individuals, from our own hearts.
My wife and I got this out on the table for us to address in an ongoing manner, thankfully, a few years into our marriage, but how often does this continue for years and years, a subtle or not so subtle current of complacency and resentment running through what is supposed to be a beautiful intimacy? How long before the pressure on that dam of an invisible wall breaks through in a torrent of frustration and anger?
Egalitarian practice, to my mind rips the foundation of fear out from under us as we get to know each other. We still default to old ways sometimes, but the important thing is that we can both hold each other to the same standard as we work out differences. There is no longer any room for fear in addressing concerns between us – no fear that “it’s not my place”, and there’s also no room for being offended that my wife would dare step out of her place and correct me. That’s just what humans in healthy relationships do: We work things out.