When my husband and I speak together about Corsets and Bowties, audience members will come up asking questions about other gender myths. They ask things like:

  • What are we referring to when we speak of a marriage where there is no tie-breaker and no spiritual leader?
  • What makes egalitarian marriage unique from a complementarian or patriarchal marriage?
  • How do egalitarian marriages get things done when no one person has the final word? Isn’t it chaotic? How do you avoid snapping your marriage with all the tug-o-war?

Today, complementarian, patriarchal and egalitarian marriages all claim to share the same values, at least on paper, like working toward the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and believing that women are equal image bearers of God (though this latter one was a recent addition for complementarians, see The Danvers Statement 1987).

I’ve explained in previous posts how I believe egalitarianism is more beautiful than patriarchy, how both egalitarians and complementarians need to grow. My husband and I have written in other places about the biblical reasons for women’s voice in the church and home. What follows is not a theological essay, but a practical one.

How do you make egalitarian marriages work?

I’ve asked my husband, Dale, to write out five values or principles of an Christian Egalitarian Marriage (CEM). I’ve added examples in italics after each value to flesh out what makes an CEM work. Below you’ll find a lengthy collaboration, an article written by a husband-wife team on what CEM means.

1 – Flexible Roles – The husband and the wife value their respective roles.  These roles for the husband and wife follow from their gifts and abilities, not from their gender. How do we determine roles? These are derived from assessing the gifts we bring to our partnership and finding mutual agreement for the good of each other.  Sometimes our gender will reveals our gifts: for a woman this may mean childbearing and for a man it may mean upper body strength.  But our gender alone will not curtail or privilege our calling to any one role if we lack the ability for that role.  A woman’s ability to bear children is unlike a man’s, and so she may play that role in the marriage. But the role of a parent is open to both father and mother.  In a CEM marriage, both partners could agree for the wife to stay home full-time and for the husband to work full time.  Or they could both agree to work part-time so they can co-parent their children.   Or they could both agree for the wife to work full time and the husband to stay at home full-time.  Each marriage is different, with different personalities and different goals.  The CEM allows flexibility, because neither spouse will be gifted to lead in every area of marriage.  Each leads where they are strong and able and, like instruments in a duet, they each defer to the leadership of the stronger in their gifted area.

In our family, I lead in the meal planning, Dale leads in the meal shopping, I lead in the meal cooking and Dale leads in the clean-up. When we first got married, I knew more about cleaning dishes than Dale. I lead him in washing, drying, putting away. But now, I don’t know how to make our dishwasher work properly.  I let him lead in that area.  

2 – Complementary –  In a CEM, both sexes, the husband and wife, complement one another, from sex to making final decisions.  Since each man differs from other men and since each woman differs from other women, the CEM will complement each other in a unique unassigned way.  Because we believe in differences, each partner wants input from the other sex to inform and round-out decisions.  The husband doesn’t consult with the wife as an advisor, but as an equal partner, a human more similar to him than different (Hebrew “ezer kenegdo” a helper corresponding to him).  The wife can and often will make final decisions for the good of the family just as the husband will. All CEM live out a complementary partnership.

While I talk about the precise soul differences between men and women at length in Ruby Slippers, let me give one example.  Every month something reminds me that I am grounded to my body.  All women know about this monthly reminder, they hate it, they hide it, they hope for it, they fear for it.  They even miss it when it’s gone. But women’s monthly cycle helps locate our humanity in something both messy and alive.  We are made to hold life, even if we never have children, in a way men are not. This often makes us more aware of life, human need and human vulnerability. This awareness is part of our ability to help God, our husbands, our brothers, our children in this world. It’s part of why Dale relies on me in decision making.

3 – Two Spiritual Leaders – In a CEM, each spouse is responsible of taking care of their own growth and well-being, both before marriage and during marriage.  As each is gifted, leadership is a responsibility for both genders.  The husband and wife are both leaders in the home, including spiritual leaders.  This is distinct from even soft complementarians, as Tim Keller reveals when he preaches from Ephesians 5, “Paul says, first of all, if two Spirit-filled people get married, the wife should grant the husband leadership in the marriage.” Keller qualifies this by saying the husband MUST have submitted his ego to God if he is to be the leader in the marriage and that the way this leadership is played out is up to each couple (read full transcript of his “Hope for the Family” sermon).  However, this leadership, if it means anything, puts some final responsibility on the husband to ensure everyone is as spiritually mature as he thinks they should be. Egalitarians say that this kind of husbandly leadership

  1. debilitates the wife from being an equal in her spiritual responsibility and leadership
  2. and shoulders the husband with Adam’s burden of being “alone” in his responsibility (a situation Eve was made to change).

Speaking together in southern California

For a CEM marriage, Jesus is the spiritual leader, not the husband or wife.  A CEM that walks daily with Jesus will find each partner leading, liberating each other with new insight. CEM believes that only by being responsible of taking care of ourselves are we better able to reach out and love our spouse.  The husband and wife are to challenge one another in spiritual growth equally and both lead their children equally. The CEM is concerned not only that each spouse have equal worth but that each spouse be treated as equally human. CEM believe permanent leadership or subordination of one spouse over the other is dehumanizing and spiritually insulting.

While Dale and I know we each want each other’s input and advice, regularly, we also know that we will each stand before God as individual souls, responsible for our spiritual maturity, our choice of love and respect, our leadership in our family with our son and toward each other.  I do not rely on Dale for my leadership in spiritual growth, nor does he rely on me for leadership in parenting our son.  We each take personal responsibility for these areas in our lives.

Practically, this means that I teach from Scripture with as much authority and leadership as Dale, whether this be from pulpits or beside our glasses of orange juice at breakfast, for the authority is found in God and his word.  I initiate prayer with as much gladness and conviction that I am called to initiate prayer and change in our spiritual lives as Dale. I am called to engage the world to see God, both in my marriage and in my community.  And, contrary to patriarchal myth, this does not stifle or snuff out Dale’s zeal. My leadership nourishes Dale’s leadership.

4 – No Tie-Breakers – Disagreements in an CEM do not require a tie-breaking vote from the man because both spouses hold 50% of the vote.  If an impasse is reached, and a final decision is necessary, what does a CEM do?  When a decision affects one spouse more than another, then the spouse most affected makes the decision.  The same is true of the spouse who knows more about a situation.  A CEM agrees to these protocols well in advance of the decision because they have practiced it in the day-to-day.  But when both spouses are equally affected and have equal knowledge, then counsel is required.  For a CEM, it is irresponsible to surrender a genuine concern about a final decision because we care about each other’s growth. Proverbs says that in a multitude of counselors there is safety.  A marriage that cannot come to agreement regularly is a weak marriage.  A marriage that refuses outside counsel is a failing one.  None of this means that each spouse must seek approval from the other for every decision, for in most areas we have already decided the freedoms each has to make decisions on their own, from budgeting for charity to planned vacation days to the best way to mow the lawn.

I may be moved to help a homeless man. I have the freedom to donate my time, money and a meal to him if I so choose.  I do not need Dale’s permission or blessing to give out of my or our funds.  If we want to purchase something beyond $500 we talk about the idea with each other, not to get permission, but to see if the other spouse has some helpful input. We decide together to purchase or move forward.  However, if the  item (a snow blower) will affect Dale more than me, I cede the final decision to him.

Recently I received an invitation to speak for a three day event. I wanted to go, but not if I would need to get a sitter for our son. Dale volunteered to watch our son so I could attend the three day event.  All things being equal, full-time child-care is not my or my husband’s ideal way to spend a weekend. We prefer co-parenting so we each get time to ourselves and together with our son.  However, since this event was more important to me, I chose the best way to make it happen. Dale agreed. If we had disagreed, we would have engaged in more discussion, prayer and if still no clarity, eventually seeking counsel (we recommend a professional, licensed marriage therapist for impasse situations).  Decision-making where

  1. both parties have equal say 
  2. and can choose to submit if the issue means more to other person 

takes a lot more time at the beginning, but it prevents one spouse muscling out the other’s perspective in an effort to “take charge” or “man-up” or “be the leader.” It also prevents my resentment, passive aggression or manipulation. I am never the victim of my husband’s final decision-making.

5 – Love, Respect and Headship –  The husband is the head of the wife.  This is a position of honor, not of authority.  Adam had this honorable place with Eve, since Eve was created out of man (the same reason, symbolically, children are to honor their parents).  If the wife cannot respect her husband, this position alone of modeling the First Man is to evoke the respect.  In the same way, all men after Eve come from women (1 Cor 11:12 “For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God).   If the husband cannot respect his wife, this position alone of modeling The Mother of All Living (the meaning of “Eve”) is to evoke his respect.  In the same way, even lousy parents are to be honored by children simply because all children come from parents (that is not to say that all children must obey bad parents).  The other metaphor Paul uses is Messiah and his church, for it is upon the Messiah that the church is built, just as Adam became the first life upon which Eve was made and marriage was built.  Much has been made about the wife submitting and the husband loving in marriage.  CEM believes this and vice versa, too. Both the husband and wife are called to submit to one another (Eph 5:21) and Jesus tells all Christians to “love one another” (John 13:34) and to “lay down your life for your friends” (John 15:13).  Both love (Titus 2:4) and submission (CEM believe submitting means cooperation not obedience: see Strong’s note on Greek non-military uses of “submit”) apply to both spouses in marriage.

I don’t buy the idea that women are naturally better at loving and men naturally better at respecting.  I know how to be unloving as good as any forgetful guy and Dale knows how to be disrespectful as well as any bitter wife.  Disrespect and unkindness are woven into both gender’s selfish hearts.  In our CEM a key phrase for communicating our desires is “When you do this, I feel (emotion word: disrespected, ignored, unimportant, belittled).”  Next step, “It would help me if you could . . . ”  

For instance, when Dale leaves the windows open and the cool air escapes making our house hot and unpleasant and I want to remind him that he forgot, the way I do it needs to be guarded with love, though his forgetfulness did not respect my request. At the beginning of all things, a man, like this man that I married, was the source for my life. I will try not to treat him like a dog, an underling, or a buffoon. 

Five principles of CEM that make our marriage work side-by-side, partners on this good earth, mutually respecting, submitting, loving.

And that is, as Anjelah Johnson would say, how we do it. (Thank you Heather M and Nichole A for introducing me to Anjelah!)

Maybe at this point you’re thinking, “No way, I can’t believe it. I thought I was in a complementarian marriage, but all the examples you’ve given make me realize I’m functioning in a CEM.”

I don’t want to sound snarky, but long ago, when I was in a complementarian marriage with Dale, one wise theologian told us, “Most healthy marriages function like egalitarians, even if they say they’re complementarian.”

Not sure what kind of marriage you’re in? Take this quick test:

1 – If you’re in a stalemate in your marriage, and you have to make the decision, who usually makes the final call?

2 – When you stand before God who will answer for the spiritual growth of your family?

3 – Whose job is it to get the family to church?

4 – Whose role is it to provide and protect the family?

5 – Who should hold the majority of authority in the family?

if you answered “husband” for most the questions, you’re in a complementarian or patriarchal marriage.

if you answered “depends”, “both” or “neither” for most the questions you’re in a CEM.

if you answered “wife”, you’re in a female dominated marriage. And that’s not a feminist marriage, btw, but a matriarchal marriage. 🙂

Do you have any more CEM values or examples?

We’d love your help to grow this list.