“Life is too short to subject myself to any more of those books.”
This was the conclusion my coworker and friend came to as we sat at lunch together a few weeks ago. I laughed, because I knew exactly to which books she was referring: those that promote a complementarian view of marriage. Needless to say, without getting into the gritty details, such teachings have caused my friend no end of grief in her own marriage.
Complementarianism is the belief that God created men and women to complement each other in marriage, and that the husband exercises headship over the wife as described in Ephesians 5:23. Many popular Christian leaders–most notably John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Debi Pearl–promote this theory in their teachings on marriage.
Now, I’m not here to claim that such a view of scripture is completely wrong. If you want to find complementarianism in scripture, you can, and, if exercised correctly, it can make for a harmonious marriage. However, many complementarian teachers too often twist scripture–to the detriment of many Christian marriages. This is what I wish to address.
A Spiritual Leader?
Many complementarians believe that God has ordained men to be the spiritual leaders, or priests, of their homes. They even go so far as to claim that the wife’s spiritual growth and vitality depends upon the depth of her husband’s spiritual devotion and his ability to hear from God. This concept is taken from…an authoritarian view of headship and some vague verses on priesthood cobbled together from the Old Testament. Don’t believe me? Search your Bible for a single verse that states or commands that men are to be the priests of their homes. It isn’t in there. No, seriously, it isn’t. Complementarian teachers just claim that it is.
But let’s just say, for kicks and giggles, that such a verse did exist. Or that you could reasonably glean the concept of male-based home priesthood from the gospel. What would such leadership look like?
Complementarians teach that such leadership includes leading the family in prayer and Bible study, providing a protective spiritual covering over the household, abstaining from sin, loving their wives as the Bible commands, disciplining their children, and having the final say in all major decisions. Which sounds good enough on the surface. But here’s where the doctrine really goes south…
See, some complementarians claim that the man’s ability to love and lead depends on the woman’s level of submission to his “godly authority.” They tell women that if their man isn’t demonstrating loving behavior, it’s because they aren’t giving him the kind of respect that he needs to thrive in his leadership. They base this idea on the fact that the command for women to submit to their husbands precedes the command for husbands to love their wives. They reason (either implicitly or explicitly) that the order of the prescriptions dictates the order of practice: first women submit, then the man loves.
There’s just one problem. That isn’t leadership. Spiritual or otherwise.
Kevin Kruse, an expert on organizational leadership, offers a good definition of leadership:
Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.
Notice that this definition doesn’t say anything about submission, hierarchy or authority. That’s because none of those things makes a person a leader. Leadership doesn’t begin with the submission of a follower. Leadership begins when a person effectively models the kind of behavior he wants to see in others and motivates his followers to emulate it through the nobility and integrity of his example.
“But just a minute,” you might say. “You’re arguing from a worldly perspective. That doesn’t count.” Well, I’m glad you mentioned that, because I was just about to show you how scripture totally backs this up.
In Ephesians 5:25, husbands are commanded to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Let’s think about that for a moment. Did Jesus wait until everyone on earth was submitting to his authority before coming down and offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins? Hardly.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
In fact, the Bible says that we love because Christ first loved us (1 John 4:19). Did you catch that? We are only capable of loving and submitting to Christ because HE made the first move. That is the kind of love the Bible commands husbands to demonstrate toward their wives. Just as = exactly.
In other words, the textual order of the commands for wives to submit and husbands to love doesn’t matter. If men are truly called to love their wives as Christ loved the church, then the onus is on them to act first.
Which means using the phrase “my wife won’t submit” as an excuse for being an abusive jerk within your marriage doesn’t fly with Jesus, buddy. And it shouldn’t fly with your pastor, either.
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers (1 Peter 3:7).
Now, I’m not telling women that a husband’s unloving behavior justifies disrespecting or belittling him. As I taught in one of my other posts on marriage, the woman’s role is to be a succor (i.e., comfort and refuge) to her husband. I stopped watching Everybody Loves Raymond a while back because I became so disgusted with how shamefully men were portrayed on the show–like clueless beings worthy of scorn. That’s not how I wish to treat my husband. He is my lover, provider, friend and the father of my child. He deserves my affection and respect as my gift–one made in the image of God, no less. That is my spiritual obligation.
But to say that men need their wives’ submission in order to lead, spiritually or otherwise, is just false. Nothing in scripture supports such a claim.
And even if it did, you couldn’t rightly call it leadership. In fact, when a woman practices submission in the midst of an unloving marriage, it is she who demonstrates spiritual leadership.
This is the problem I have with complementarianism: it too often gets the order of things all backwards. And too many young people have fallen prey to this false doctrine. Many Christian men often blame their marriage problems on their wives’ refusal to obey their every whim and, too often, the response of the pastor hearing such a complaint is to question the woman’s behavior. This is not Biblical. At all. And I’m glad that more people are speaking up and saying so.