I am so excited to get to share this post with you all today. I have been holding on to it now for a while. I was approached earlier this year by an online publication to consider submitting a new piece after they came across my earlier series More than My Roles. This post is the piece I submitted. It did not end up being published, but I learned so much through the process of writing it and was very grateful for the experience to work with an editor and to be asked to write it.
I hope you all enjoy it.
I grew up in a community that taught me from a very young age that a girl’s two biggest goals in life to reach were marriage and motherhood.
For as long as I can remember, I and every other girl I grew up around spent hours discussing every detail of the wedding we would have, to the kind of man we wanted to marry, to the names we already had picked out for our future children.
We read books on it. We talked about it as mothers and daughters. We heard sermons on it from the pulpit. We lived it and wished for it every day. We studied all the passages in the Bible and numerous Christian books on the topics of marriage, Biblical womanhood, purity, gender roles, the family structure, and knew Proverbs 31 by heart as the description of an ideal, Christian woman.
The churches I grew up around taught a very traditional, Christian, complementarian understanding of marriage and gender roles. Complementarian is a fancy theological term, describing a view of marriage where the man and woman were designed to complete each other, with each having specifically outlined his and her roles.
At best, my understanding of marriage and gender roles on the day I married painted a beautiful picture of love, dedication, service, respect, and loyalty until death do us part.
At their worst, my views had trapped me into a constrictive set of expectations of what my husband’s roles were in marriage, what my roles were, what our relationship should look like, what our faith should look like, and how every decision in our marriage should be made.
And so my marriage began—a journey of two people with a childhood of baggage, thoughts, ideas, expectations, and assumptions.
At first I just assumed that the model of marriage I had seen and been taught for so long was exactly the model my husband would want.
I assumed I would be expected to have children sooner than later.
I assumed all household duties were mine alone and expected of me always.
I assumed that my interests in education and career would always be looked upon as secondary, less important, and the first to be sacrificed for his career and family needs.
I assumed that asking permission was expected of me.
Until he didn’t.
If we need food, go buy groceries. You don’t have to ask me.
What do you think we should do about this and this?
I am not your parent. Stop expecting me to be.
How am I ever going to leave for months on end and know that you can take care of things or make decisions on your own, if you always expect me to make them for you?
And so the conversations, and arguments, and fights would go.
I soon realized that all my knowledge, observations, expectations, and assumptions about marriage were in reality just a faint and incomplete outline for what real marriage would look like.
Sometimes they gave me good advice. Other times they pushed me on this wild goose chase of hiding myself behind a facade of perfection trying to be something that we were not.
Rachel Held Evans once wrote,
The mistake these complementarians make is not in saying that a woman honors God by serving in the home. The mistake they make is in saying that the only way a woman honors God is by serving in the home. In an attempt to honor the dignity of marriage, motherhood, and domesticity, they have inadvertently made these roles into idols.
For years I have struggled between the magnetism of striving to be this woman and wife I idolized and the far different, independent woman I have become, largely thanks to my husband’s encouragement.
If my roles look different or change or have yet to be accomplished (motherhood), then what exactly should define me? Could I perhaps contribute something of value besides just those two roles?
For the first few years of marriage, I consumed the same materials and teachings out of fear and habit. I must confess I pushed my husband to absorb them too, despite how much he disliked them. I kept expecting my Catholic raised husband (who considers faith to be a very private, individual experience and approaches all organized religion with a healthy amount of skepticism) to naturally take on the role of being the complementarian husband.
Until he didn’t.
Why does the man have to be the spiritual leader?
Why can’t each individual be responsible for their own faith?
Doesn’t that imply that I am supposed to somehow be better at faith matters than you?
How am I supposed to do that when you have years on me in studying the bible, doctrine, and Christian teachings?
Also doesn’t that imply that you have to dumb yourself down for me?
Why can’t I just recognize your experience or gifting in those areas?
What do you mean women just have children and never work again?
Are you planning to do that?
My mother worked my entire childhood and I just assumed you would too?
Why is it just on me to be the provider?”
His valid questions began to challenge my views and ultimately we put away the marriage books realizing they and their prescribed roles were just not working for us.
Without much of a roadmap we began to try our best to build a marriage of partnership, mutuality, and context.
Sometimes this looks like each of us carrying more traditional roles, while more often it looks like us tackling things together from cooking, to cleaning the house, to yard work, and more.
Recognizing context means that we realize life will not always allow for our marriage, home life, and work lives to be equally split down the middle—but neither does it require a divided sphere of his and her only duties.
This is just as true for him as it has been for me.
These same traditional teachings on marriage and gender roles do not just target and limit women; they also place demanding expectations on men too.
Whether it’s the expectation for the husband to be the spiritual leader, sole financial provider, or lead decision maker — traditional teachings on marriage and gender roles from the church have mixed with a number of messages in popular culture that demand men fit into one, constrictive box.
Pastor and author, Nate Pyle writes of this:
Men’s books, whether they are Christian or secular, tend to paint a similar picture of men: rugged, individualistic, tough, macho, responsible, and providers. While there is some good in this, there is a lot that is problematic with this. What if a man isn’t those things?
Theologian Carolyn Custis James writes,
The same questions women have been asking—about identity, meaning, purpose, and God’s vision for our lives as women—are festering for men beneath today’s tragic headlines. Those same questions surface in the ordinary lives of men who one day seem “to have it all” and the next are losing their identity as men through unemployment, foreclosures, health issues, divorce, personal failure, or some other bend in the road they didn’t see coming…. Today’s world presents a plethora of challenges. We must dare to ask twenty-first century questions of the Bible, no mater how tough, taboo, or unsettling they may be. Casting a vision for women is not enough without an equally robust biblical vision for men.
In the end, this complementarian view of marriage and gender roles are failing men and women, as it only really works by requiring the couple to view themselves as two individuals who need to morph into one reduced whole, versus a perspective that allows two people to wholly and equally contribute together as a team.
Furthermore, complementarian teachings on marriage and gender roles do not just fail heterosexual men and women in marriage, but they also completely fail to address couples within a same-sex marriage context.
The church itself stands largely divided on the issue of same-sex marriage. Many Christians with a traditional view of scripture still advocate a scriptural and doctrinal stance against any form of same-sex relationships. However at the same time, there is a growing number of Christian individuals, churches, denominations, clergy, and theologians that have come to new scriptural understandings and an affirming perspective of same-sex relationships and marriage.
Now regardless of these debates, there are growing numbers of LGBT individuals and same-sex married couples, who also identify as Christians. In reality, there have been for some time. They have just been quiet in the background—some together as unannounced couples, some celibate, some leaving the church, and others participating in silence.
Now we are starting to see a change though. Instead of arguing over whether they can be Christian and same-sex attracted, LGBT individuals have stopped waiting for permission to live their lives and their faith. In doing this they are now looking for the Church to provide guidance on how they too can build a family of loving, committed, and Christ-centered relationships.
So, how does the church navigate forward now? Is there at least room for a different conversation between churches and Christians with traditional and affirming belief?
Is there room for a different model of marriage and gender roles to be taught?
In the end, for many today the Church and culture’s instructions on marriage and gender roles sit like ignored elephants amongst our sanctuaries and homes, as couples try and fail to fit the mold or sit in a pew wishing for a different model to be preached.
I know this because it was and is so many of my friends.
It was us.
It was me.
And it was only until my husband encouraged me to see how inefficient and incomplete the complementarian model of marriage was, that I began to see a new and better way forward.
For further resources see:
The Junia Project Resources Page: http://juniaproject.com/resources-2/
Christians for Biblical Equality: http://www.cbeinternational.org
Rachel Held Evans Mutuality Series: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/?tag=mutuality
Carolyn Custis James Blog: http://www.whitbyforum.com
Nate Pyle’s Blog: http://natepyle.com
Matthew Vines: Talks at Google https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyVvjAdbaaQ
Brownson, James, (2013). Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Evans, Rachel Held, (2012). A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’, Harper Collins Christian Publishing.
James, Carolyn Custis, (2015). Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, Harper Collins Publishing.
Pyle, Nate, (2015). Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood, Zondervan.
Vines, Matthew. (2014). God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same Sex Marriage, Random House, LLC.,