How to Be Egalitarian with a Complementarian Spouse

Halley Watson Kim

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How to be egalitarian

Well, you cry a lot, sometimes, especially in the beginning.

You sit opposite each other on the kitchen floor and joust back and forth with “Well, how come we care about the prohibition of women teaching but not women wearing gold jewelry?” and “Well, despite Jesus being so countercultural in his treatment of women, why were The Twelve all men?”

“Read these,” he says as he hands you heavily-footnoted position papers he received at presbytery — you mark them up furiously. You give him articles from Christians for Biblical Equality and Junia Project and he does the same.

You both get mad and accuse the other of not being the person you married.

You get into theological fistfights.

“That’s hermeneutical gymnastics!” you declare.

You assume the worst of each other.

And you scream, out-loud or in your heart or both.

Valid points are made on both sides. Both of you “win” some rounds and get the other to say “I can’t refute that.” And you feel smug. And then you feel crummy for feeling smug.

Sometimes you just have to give it a rest. You live life. You ask God to intervene according to God’s will and timing and you hang up your hat as best you can.

You find a few good friends who are further along on this journey than you are; ask for their advice. If you don’t have these friendships in real life, they can be developed on social media. You’re not the first person to have this marital struggle, and it helps just knowing you’re not alone.

When you find common ground you cherish it.

For us, we agree the Church needs to do a better job of encouraging women to use their gifts (we disagree on what this looks like). We also agree our marriage has always been egalitarian, though we wouldn’t have always used that word. I don’t submit to my husband more than he does to me. We’ve always split domestic work up nontraditionally (he’s the chef and is always on top of dishes and laundry…I, well, I eat his food and make sure there’s plenty of dishes and laundry to do).

You tell him he’s not a woman and cannot appreciate this debate beyond an academic level. He says that’s true.

You tell him this is not just about hermeneutics but about how God sees you — you tell him it’s personal and it hurts and he’s privileged in the Church and you’re not. He nods.

He says sometimes he wishes he were an egalitarian — it would be so much easier! You note his internal battle, while nearly being bowled over by your own, and you sigh together. Today you are thankful to be heard if not fully understood.

You pray about it.

You tell Jesus you’re worn out and confused and it’s not fair.

He says He knows.

He says He loves you.

He says He sees you as a full person like you always hoped but never truly knew until you became an egalitarian.

Conversations slowly evolve. You gently tell your husband that his jokes about “girl power” are offensive because in so many places in the world — including American churches — girls do not have power. You dialogue about women’s rights, about Bible translations, about seminary days, about questions unanswered.

You both make each other think.

You talk about how great it is that your pastor-husband now works in a church with female elders and you try to hide your smile when he tells you that all the best elders in the session are women. You tell him how much you appreciate it when the senior pastor, his boss and the father of five girls, says “fishers of people” instead of “fishers of men” while preaching.

You watch him talk to his two-year-old daughter and tell her that she can be anything she wants to be when she grows up, and you know he means it. You know he struggles with his accepted exegesis and his desire for his feisty daughter to pursue her dreams freely. You think about your daughter’s name – Phoebe – and ponder what seed God could be planting.

It occurs to you that arriving at an egalitarian understanding is a conversion, lesser than the salvation experience, but still a profound awakening. And it’s not something you can “make” someone else do, even someone you’re married to and love deeply. Likewise, it’s not something you can make yourself un-believe. God changed your heart, and there’s no going back.

You’ve ranted and raved, fueled by a passion that is good and right, but you’re humbled now to admit your partner still disagrees with you.

You commit to do more praying and less badgering.

You stop acting like you know everything (or that he knows nothing).

You recommend resources that helped you, and you let him say yes or no freely.

You chill out.

It turns out that diving into a complex subject with your spouse goes over a lot better when you are level-headed and willing to listen and talk about one thing at a time (instead of throwing the kitchen sink of biblical equality at them).

And you grapple with the truth that people are not easily put in boxes.

It’s not complementarian = evil and egalitarian = good. It’s never been that simple.

You respect some leaders and scholars of both persuasions. You, in many ways, have the advantage of a unique perspective: you know that while some complementarians are extremists, most are good people who are devoted to the authority of Scripture and aren’t sure why the Bible seemingly bars women from ministry.

Your spouse similarly knows that while some egalitarians take the Bible less seriously, most hold dearly to their belief in the Bible’s inerrancy; they simply exegete it differently. It’s so easy to vilify “the other side,” but you and I know better. We’re married to the other side! And we know their humanity as they know ours.

As time goes by, you reflect on your growth as a couple. You had a conversation about women in leadership and no one suffered an aneurysm! That’s worth celebrating!

You champion each other.

I’d defend my husband to feminist friends who might assume his complementarian view equates an antagonistic stance towards women (it doesn’t). And he’d defend me to seminary friends who might assume my egalitarian view equates a flippant view of Scripture (it doesn’t).

You write for the Junia Project at your complementarian husband’s encouragement, and you even take his suggestion to explore the complexities of a “mixed marriage.” You email him your piece and he writes back “LOVE IT!”

And you take some wisdom for the road.

My friend Rachel gave me this advice a year ago and I carry it with me still:

“Just as we don’t change sin patterns overnight, we don’t leave behind old thought patterns & beliefs that quickly, either — and sometimes ever! It’s an inside job…mutual leadership begins with mutual submission — we love and respect and move with strong patience, and we wait on the Lord to change hearts.”

Halley Watson Kim

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18 Comments

  • I’ve grappled with my theology on this for years, and after coming out of an abusive marriage began to lean more towards egalitarian, simply because of how I’ve seen the other used to keep women in bondage. I am still not 100% sure of my stance, but know that complementarian as it’s taught in most churches is definitely not what I believe, and I’m sure it’s not what God intends. Anyway, a year ago our church hosted a wonderful pastor and Greek scholar for a ladies conference. As we discussed the egalitarian/comp. debate, she made a wonderful statement. “I’ve always said that if a marriage is good, you won’t be able to tell the difference between complementarian and egalitarian.” I think that’s true, because I remarried 17 years ago, as one complementarian married to another, but the issues of headship and submission have never even come up, because we’re true partners. In the past, I was a slave, but now it doesn’t seem to matter than my beliefs have changed, because nothing in our marriage has.

    • Thank you this is wonderful to read! Yes if we are all Poor in Spirit all the rest is bunkum…

  • I don’t have any experience in this, but it was so nice to read what you have been both going through! Also seriously Halley, you are such an awesome writer! So proud ☺️

  • This is very familiar to my journey as well. We spiraled so far into anger with one another over the egal/comp theological divide that it became a stalemate that we couldn’t get over. We decided to spend a couple of months in marriage counseling. We were so TIRED of fighting. We picked someone recommended by a trustworthy friend whom we did not know (or know her stance on the issue).

    Marriage counseling was BRUTAL, but it worked. She is a Gottman trained therapist and explained that you do not have to agree with one another on the deepest issues to have a happy and healthy marriage. Good thing too because compromise was not an option for either of us. She helped us figure out what the underlying problems were (triggers if you will). For me, it was feeling silenced (because of a fundie background this was life for me and I don’t want anywhere near it again). When we fought, I felt like my husband wasn’t listening to me. I realized that I didn’t need him to agree. I needed him to listen and to affirm my feelings as valid even if he couldn’t understand or relate to them. He realized that he could listen and validate my ideas without endorsing or agreeing with them. He had his own set of issues that we dealt with.

    Once we got to this point (and the fighting increased dramatically for those two months that it took to get there), we didn’t feel the need to argue nearly as much. And when we did it was much healthier and more productive. I learned to say, “I feel invisible right now. I need to you listen to what I am saying and not rip my opinions to shreds.” And he was able to express his own needs (and I learned some important clue words to make me pay attention)…

    I know that if I were to marry now, I would not consider marrying a complementarian Calvinist; so honestly, I am thankful that I met and married my husband long before I made the move from compism to egalism. He’s still my best friend and certainly the “iron” in my life that keeps me intellectually honest and the encouragement that I need to get out of my former mentality. Our joke is that he made me into an egal on accident because of his respect and love for me. I’ve learned to look past his theological position that denies women leadership at the highest level of church politics and look at the man that he actually IS – kind and loving and empowering. He looks past me theological perspective he feels plays too freely with Scripture to see the woman I actually am – a devoted follower of Jesus and committed student of Scripture.

    There IS hope for these kinds of marriages if you can get to the place where you don’t have to change your spouse. We married at 20 (13 years) ago, and both of us have gone through multiple “re-births.” It seems like at each stage we have to choose each other again and intentionally give the other space to pursue God and self-actualization without fear of abandonment. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

    • glad to hear you worked it out…hoping the best for you both. So glad I found out by accident that my husband, who converted after me, didn’t think much of complementarian thought even though I thought he would…it was me who became egalitarian before I realized that he agreed with ME! Thankfully!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story! Yes, that totally resonates with me! I kind of feel like my husband accidentally made me into an egalitarian too — all that love and respect 😉 I completely agree that we must accept that we cannot change our spouses — that is God’s work, and just as you say, we have the opportunity to keep saying “yes” to each other as we both transition into new selves along the way. There is so much wisdom in your story, Dalaina, I really appreciate you sharing it with us.

  • Loved this piece – and after 44 years of marriage, most of which I struggled through trying to understand my gifts and be faithful to scripture and to walking this journey out with my husband – so thankful for this space and seeing such helpful thoughts. Such s good and balanced and loving perspective.

    • Thank you so much, Sysan! I’m touched by your feedback.

  • Halley, this is such an honest and caring post. It takes a while doesn’t it, and it’s heartening that you are in an egalitarian marriage. Can you imagine if that were not the case? My thoughts are that you were converted to understanding that God is an egalitarian, and your husband is in the process… he’s there really in every way but the doctrinal sense… how cool that he’s such a good guy who operates in significant opposition to his own theories.

    • I really cannot imagine if that were not the case (that I’m in an egalitarian marriage). I’ve read many gut-wrenching stories of hard comp marriages and I was naively unaware that such a relationship dynamic even existed until I started down this journey. I feel very blessed to be married to my husband, and I agree with you that he is an egalitarian in heart but not in doctrine. And he is a such a good guy 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment.

  • I also “LOVE IT!” Thanks for revealing hope by sharing your experience. We have a lot to learn!

    • It’s my joy to share my experience and “spread the hope” to others. So glad you enjoyed it.

  • I am both saddened by your Pastor husband’s theology of Women in Ministry and heartened by your description of how you deal with it.
    Thanks from a woman Pastor.

    • It makes me sad too. I’m glad I could share my experience in a way that was heartening. Thank YOU for being a pastor and an example to our daughters!

  • Hi
    What if it is the wife who holds a complementarian position, and the man who holds the egalitarian one ???

    • I don’t have any direct experience with this, but I have heard from several egalitarian husbands who are struggling in this dynamic. There are a few egalitarian Facebook groups I belong to where I have come across men in this situation who are willing to talk about their experiences. I would love to read a blog post from one of them!

  • Love it! As a former Presbyterian for 20 years, I can relate to so much in this post.

    In my present position as a pastor of a church rejoining the UCC, I don’t usually get into these conversations inside my church. But, outside of my church? You betcha. As a former Evangelical/now-Progressive Christian, you better believe I strive to make my exegesis square with my high view of Scripture. Again, I appreciate Halley and pray peace, harmony and well-being for her and her family.
    @chaplaineliza

    • Thank you so much Elizabeth! It it tricky, holding an egalitarian view and being Presbyterian/evangelical. So glad I could present a story you can relate to.

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