How Headship Complicates Marriage

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Out of all the patriarchal and complementarian wife material I read, I don’t remember reading much about any of the actual challenges I face or the most helpful solutions I use in my marriage today.

I read little about good communication, lots about keeping a happy smile on your face when hubby comes home. I didn’t hear about conflict resolution that much, aside from learning to swallow your pride when hubby makes a stupid decision. I didn’t know about the dynamics of individual personality, just the dynamics of stereotyped gender roles. I never heard the words “consent” or “mutual” until recently.

I don’t think that’s accidental.

When you’re busy trying to impose an artificial structure on something organic, when you focus on something tangential or even harmful to real marriage, you gloss over all the real problems and solutions.

I mean, of course, the patriarchal and complementarian obsession with male headship as a formula for marital success.

Let me point out that many complementarians focus on the main directive of Ephesians 5: loving, laying down one’s life, and seeking unity above all. Even if they accept an idea of male headship, they encourage men to love as the primary objective of that headship. Those complementarians understand marriage and basic exegesis. Good on them.

But the vast majority of complementarians, for better or worse, focus on a descriptive clause (“the husband is the head of the wife”) and make it the main action verb, the takeaway, the “go and do this” for husbands. They stress that this descriptive clause makes or breaks a marriage, that male headship is essential to a happy marriage, that it, combined with the wife’s unconditional submission, solves or prevents most of today’s marriage problems.

This leads to abuse, at worst, and at best, complicates marriage.

Male headship is entirely unnecessary to a happy marriage. Any sort of hierarchy in an intimate relationship is entirely unnecessary. The only vaguely convincing reason complementarians give for the necessity of headship is when husband and wife can’t come to an agreement and somebody needs to be the tiebreaker.

When somebody argues this, I want to peer at them and say, Have you never tried picking out a movie with siblings? Did you not grow up debating the merits of every movie in your movie cabinet, parsing the moods and opinions of eight other immature, selfish people, and keeping in mind that three-year-olds can’t watch most of the movies your heart desires? 

In every case, with more people, more subjectivity, and more nuance, we all came to a compromise.

I imagine the ludicrousness of my brother standing up and saying, “Well, I, as male, have heard all of your opinions, which I value, but we’re going to go with mine, because I decided it was the best.” Everyone would have called that out for what it is — presumption, pride, stupidity — even if it was our oldest brother trying to call the shots.

I can only imagine this, because never, in my life of big or little decision-making, did anyone consider this a good idea, much less a necessity, for problem solving or the relationship itself.

In my egalitarian marriage, Erich and I make all sorts of mutual decisions that initially started as our biggest spats, problems we thought would break us, problems with no immediate compromise. Making those tough decisions together, without giving either of us the final say, forced us to mature and love in unforeseen ways — you know, the point of marriage.

Intimate relationships don’t need hierarchy. They need understanding, patience, and lots of time and energy to come to an acceptable compromise.

Many women in complementarian marriages, even those who voluntarily grant their husbands the right to exercise veto power in decision-making, instinctively feel the unfairness and betrayal of intimacy when their marriage becomes more about the husband’s headship and less about love, trust, and good communication.

“Whenever he made a final decision that disagreed with my opinion, I cried,” women tell me. “I know he’s doing it for our good, but I feel like I’m making all the sacrifices in the relationship and I have no control over my future.”

“I cried all the time when I first learned to submit,” one complementarian said in the course of trying to convince me of “Biblical headship.”

I am appalled at the number of crying complementarian wives and the inefficacy of their tears to signal even to themselves that something’s badly off about this “Biblical marriage advice.”

These are not women in abusive or even dysfunctional relationships — just normal complementarian women with normal complementarian husbands who aren’t purposefully going out of their way to hurt their wives.

This pain and sorrow stem from relying on male headship and female submission to arbitrate the relationship.

A complementarian gloss on these women’s pain is, “Well, she needs to submit more.” Any competent marriage counselor will tell you, “No, they need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better solution.”

I fear many complementarians miss everyday moments to grow in basic relationship skills because they are forever talking about this binary of submit more and lead more, be more masculine, more feminine, be more entrenched in distinct roles, and then your complicated relationships will work

In reality, the couples need to take a Gottman class. They need to read some books on good communication. They need to get marriage counseling. They need to get real, tangible help and real, practical solutions beyond the shaming advice to be more of a leader and more of a follower.

This is a marriage, allegedly the most intimate relationship on earth, not a government system.

Good communication skills will solve problems — not the male veto. Speaking exactly what’s on one’s mind will result in greater intimacy — not tiptoeing around the male ego. Pushing back against a husband’s normal selfishness and pride will result in sanctification — not giving him the final say over everything. Reaching a compromise acceptable to both parties will strengthen the marital bond — not stopping the conversation short and making a decision, anyway.

When men are told to love and sacrifice for their wives but also be the man, the leader, and the dude with the power over his wife, that complicates marriage.

When women are told to be free, open, and intimate with their husbands but also shut up and put up once he gives the final word, that complicates marriage.

When spouses must worry about maintaining their “masculinity” and “femininity,” their roles and duties, in addition to addressing their individual and collective sins and hurts, that complicates marriage.

When spouses must worry about maintaining a structure easily tilted towards selfishness or abusethat complicates marriage.

Marriage, as I’ve found, is hard enough without unnecessary, harmful structures, expectations, and roles. Whatever is meant by headship in Scripture, I think it’s prudent to err on the side of loving, loving, loving unconditionally, mutually submitting to one another out of love for Christ.

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6 thoughts on “How Headship Complicates Marriage

  1. Jasmine Ruigrok

    Thankyou for sharing these thoughts, Bailey. Over the course of time I’ve been following your writings here, I’ve been challenged and been provoked to thinking more about how God ordained marriage to work. Whilst I probably wouldn’t ever really call myself an egalitarian (because I hate labels. I’m a rebel like that), a lot of the things you have shared about it I quite agree with. This article is probably one of my favourites.

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  2. Dorothy L Sayers

    I would consider myself a complenentarian (please do not shoot me), but I also agree with many of the things you stated here. So I have a couple thoughts and questions and would genuinely like to hear your opinions about them.

    Firstly, as it relates to the words submission and headship, what definitions would you be using when you read the Ephesians passage? And are those definitions the same as would be used by the Debbie Pearls of this world? To keep it simple, do you just fly with her definition so you do not constantly have to explain where you are coming from?

    Secondly, when reading Ephesians 5:22-29, the passage on marriage, I see the focus as less on headship/submission and more on the Christ/church relationship being the model for husband/wife relations. How does the marriage relationship being a symbol of the Christ/Church relationship figure into your evaluation?

    Thirdly, when reading this passage I am always, always struck by the verse preceding it. In vs 21, outside of the regular marriage discussion, the very same word “submit” is used in the context of encouraging members of the body to submit one to another. And if (as seems to be how most people in the conservative, fundamental churches define it) submission is looking to my husband to make all the decisions without giving him thought or comment, letting him run over me when he sees it as necessary (being his door mat), and then calling it all healthy, when it is used earlier (if one is to be consistent) I am therefore called to submit to the rest of the body, making me the church’s welcome mat. This view does not seem consistant with the rest of Scripture. This is why I asked you about the definitions you use. Because I honestly do not think God calls his children to be rugs any more than he calls us to be 2-D creatures.

    Against whatever Pearl might say, I honestly think the problem is not nearly so much what the bible says, but how his misguided children have seen to interpret, define, and apply it to themselves and then force it onto others.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I appreciate your thoughts and questions, Dorothy! I hope nothing I said in this post or anywhere else on my blog have made you feel I would be hostile to complementarians!! You are very welcome here!

      I think we share a similar interpretation of Ephesians 5:22-29. In this post, I am speaking out against the understanding of “headship” as “authority” and “submission” as, well, any form of “subservience.” I think the accurate interpretation of “headship” is “source” and “submission” as “putting another’s needs ahead of your own” (as *all* Christians are called to do to each other, as you said).

      I think Paul employs the Christ/church metaphor in order to emphasize that the husband, regardless of his alleged physical or societal superiority to his wife, is to seek his wife’s needs before his own (i.e., submit in the sense we already defined) and use his position and influence to bring his wife into total equality. Christ is the ultimate example of power, authority, and virtue, yet he humbled himself to bring his church into full equality with him. We’re now co-heirs and brothers with Christ, one with the Father in Christ. That’s why Paul ponders the mystery of a husband leaving his father and mother to be one flesh with his wife — it’s similar to the mystery of Christ leaving heaven to be one with us, his church. UNITY via sacrifice and service is the point. So patriarchs have no excuse *NOT* to submit — even Jesus, the ultimate man of power, served others before himself!

      My short interpretation of that passage is this: Put each other first, period. Even if you’re a Roman patriarch and society says you’re in charge. Even if you’re a parent. Even if you’re a master. Even if you’re a woman stuck in a negative patriarchal position. Even if you’re a child stuck in a negative patriarchal position. Even if you’re a slave stuck in a negative patriarchal position.

      I completely agree with you that when it comes to this passage, the problem is not with Scripture but with misguided interpretations!

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      • Dorothy L Sayers

        So of the way Christ exercises his authority, and we certainly agree that he has all authority in heaven and on earth, is self sacrificially, then that becomes the standard for what biblical authority looks like, would you not agree? Christ is the archetype, and husband are just followers of that.

        I think your definition of submission is spot on. Putting your own needs, desires and goals beneath those odd another person..that is self sacrificing as well.

        So really then, the authority and submission roles ought not be nearly as polarized as they are made to be in the church. But yet, if I am stuck in a relationship (child, wife, slave, etc) with someone who does not appreciate this interpretation, I am still called to submit….not by subservience but by putting my own needs before that other persons. I think this is really where the rubber hits the road, as they say, since it is acting under less than ideal circumstances if the person one is under is acting all authoritarian. Also, they would probably have a hard time not seeing a more subservient attitude when what you are really trying to do is put your own needs under theirs. And again, it leaves wide the door for abuse by the authoritarian.

        I just think the whole issue us not nearly so neatly packaged in real life, in real situations or when one hasn’t married a man or the daughter of a man who is agrees about all this. And at that time, nice little labels can be helpful to clear one’s own thinking, but will not necessarily fix the situation.

        Also, another note: the Americanized married gender roles of the wife cooking and cleaning and the husband working the the garage on the car our mowing the lawn can be a bit ridiculous at times. But if one had thoroughly hashed out expectations and preferences, surely you would agree that if a woman really hates mowing the lawn and the man really does not mind at all, there would be no problem in them assuming those responsibilities in the home, just as if he adored vacuuming, and she adored working on cars, they could each take over those roles without issue, no? What I am saying is that if they discuss it and she has a propensity for some more “wifely” jobs and he had an innate propensity for more “husbandly” things, it is okay to assume those roles as long as it has been discuss rather then assumed.

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      • Bailey Steger

        Yes, I would agree that Biblical authority looks like Christ-like sacrificial love. I just don’t believe the Ephesians 5 passage *encourages* the cultural, patriarchal belief that men are the authority in the marriage or the family. It tolerates patriarchy, just as it tolerates the institution of slavery, but since the ultimate point is unity and equality, those virtues naturally undermine slavery and patriarchy and make them unneeded or harmful to healthy Christian relationships.

        I think you’re right that submission and authority ought not to be as polarized as they are. In all circumstances, everyone ought to “submit to one another” as little Christs, regardless of our worldly or churchly stations. How that works out, like you said, can be complicated and diverse.

        And I completely agree that there’s nothing at all wrong with a wife doing stereotypical “wifely” things! Egalitarianism is all about putting the person before gender. A person’s inclinations, gifts, and interests ought to guide who does what in the home, the church, and the world. A woman can be a stay-at-home homeschool mom and still be passionately egalitarian! There’s absolutely no contradiction there.

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