What is a man and a woman? The definitions of gender have changed over the centuries and have been shaped by myths, culture, economics, religion and families. And these definitions shape how we view and live in marriages right now. In recent decades there has been a frequent debate among Christian communities over Complementarian and Egalitarian views of marriage.
I address this debate in my book Revolutionary Marriage. The complementarian camp believes there are scripturally ordained roles for males and females in marriage and church structure. They believe there is a created order. This order places men in greater importance than women, and men by virtue of being male, are designated leaders in both the home and church. The Egalitarian camp emphasizes equal value between the genders and there are no ordained roles for men and women in the church and home. In the egalitarian view, women or men can hold any role equally effectively.
The debate between these two camps sets up a dichotomy or either/or choices. But the world functions in gray more than black and white. We need to get more comfortable with this diverse uncertainty. Paul uses the idea of “mystery” to describe marriage and I think this reflects the complex “grays” that are experienced in most marriage relationships.
I discuss the weaknesses of both of these positions in my book Revolutionary Marriage and propose a third way that works outside the dichotomous debate. It was my hope to suggest a view for marriage that helps us navigate mystery in marriage. When we settle for the certainty of either the Complementarian or Egalitarian views, we miss out of the rich diversity that can bless us in marriage. I want to focus on one idea that I suggested in my book to help move past this debate.
We need to stop thinking about genders having specific roles, and be more concerned with what gifts, skills, talents, or abilities a particular partner brings to a marriage. When we focus on roles we create a context where people often feel shamed or less than. The constraint of a specific role can lead them to feel stuck, unfulfilled or even a failure.
The number of conflicts I have seen in Christian marriages over disappointment with roles and expectations are too numerous. A wife might feel like her husband needs to live up to his role as spiritual leader of the household and the husband feels inadequate to the task. A husband may be hypercritical because his wife does not manage the household like he expected. I have seen husbands feel inadequate because their wife has a larger salary. Wives can feel insecure over their abilities to nurture their children, as their husband might be more skilled at soothing an upset child.
So if we stop insisting on specific gender “roles” then how does my solution of focusing on gifts, skills, or abilities work?
God created males and females in His image. This means both genders represent God and reflect his glory to all of creation. God is so vast, the diversity of reflecting his image is immeasurable. Roles are far too limiting. Marriage, the joining of two distinct representations of the Creator, is but one way God allows humanity to reflect His glory. A husband and wife both bring unique gifts and skills to the marriage. It is the responsibility of the couple to capitalize and utilize those gifts to best reflect God’s image to those around them. Teaming together, the couple becomes a witness of God’s identity to their community. Let me give you an example from our marriage.
Early in our marriage I attempted to manage the budget, bills, and money. And honestly I was not good at it. After a few bounced check fees, my wife took over the duties with our money. Patricia is strongly gifted in organization, planning, and scheduling. She can visualize future challenges and creates structure to best avoid those problems. These are gifts of administration, and often in complementarian marriages associated with a male type role. But she skillfully managed this part of our home and family with great success. She created a budget structure that we follow today. She also created a system for managing our money and paying our bills that I have since taken over and it works seamlessly. Even though I currently manage it, all the underlying processes were set in place because of her gifts. As a result her gifts have allowed us to be good stewards of our blessings.
This is just one example, and I could give many others with more space and time. So should a Christian marriage have roles? The answer is No. As a couple you should identify and capitalize on the gifts that each of you bring to the marriage. So what steps can you take to escape roles and better reflect God’s image?
1. Identify your gifts, talents and abilities. This is a fun discussion. What are you good at? What talents has God blessed you with? Let your spouse tell you what they see as skills and abilities in you. These talents may be nontraditional for your gender. That is wonderful. List them because God made you that way.
2. Start planning as a couple how to implement each of your gifts. One of you may be a more natural caregiver so you might be the person who takes kids to the doctor. One of you might be a better teacher, so you might be helping with homework more. There needs to be some balance here, so that the total workload is shared. Remember you are a team and staying in unity with your spouse is a central goal of a Christian marriage.
3. Humbly accept that your spouse’s gifts can teach you. You can learn from your partner. My wife has taught me much about organization and administration. I am a better therapist because of her. Allow the things you learn from your partner to grow you, change you, and benefit your family and others.
This work is hard. Don’t be deceived by the notion that you can find the right partner and it become easy from that point on. Diligently pursuing bringing the best out of each other is ultimately rewarding because you get to enjoy the intimacy of your spouse’s best. So commit to the effort and work together.
Remember the goal is for your marriage to be a reflection of God’s glory. Your marriage should reflect God’s image. The goal should never be to squeeze into a box of a certain predefined role. Rather, how the two of you work together to show God to others and the community is what is most important.