6 Ways to Know You’re Living Out an Egalitarian Marriage

Robin Rhine McDonald

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6 WAYS TO KNOW wedding

couple holding hand egalitarian marriage

In 2015, a few months before my wedding, I wrote a blog for the Junia Project titled, 6 Things Egalitarian Marriage is Not. At that point, I had only a theological and biblical understanding of egalitarian marriage. Today, Ryan and I are just just shy of our 2 year anniversary, and I’ve got some egalitarian newlywed experience to offer as a sequel.

Two different, individual people coming together to live as one flesh, come to find, is a process! It’s all too easy to live in the world of “me, myself, and I” when it comes to feelings, thoughts, opinions, and decisions. I continue to learn what it means to be “us”, and that what I do always has a direct effect on my husband.

With that said, these are the relational dynamics that I’ve found to reveal whether or not an egalitarian marriage is underway:

You have Jesus as the head

One of the major differences between egalitarian and complementarian marriage is the concept of “headship”. I have heard my complementarian friends say that, ultimately, the man is the head, and that he needs to make the final decision when necessary. Additionally, many of these friends express concern for upholding biblical authority within the marriage.

Well, rest assured. In an egalitarian marriage, there’s both headship and authority: Jesus. That doesn’t mean, however, that neither of us ever desire to step into the role of “God” from time to time. (Just me?) Before we were married, Jesus was Lord, the one we gave our lives to follow. Now that we’re married, Jesus is Lord, the one we’ve given our lives to follow. The difference now is that we get to figure out what following him looks like together!

You decide together 

This one goes hand in hand with having Jesus as the head. In an egalitarian marriage, Jesus leads both spouses into a unified decision. Neither person has more potential to hear God’s guidance better than the other based on their gender. God speaks to everyone, providing an unending opportunity for both spouses to seek and hear him. Whatever the circumstance, if a couple does not collaborate on a decision, it can create a rift in their relationship that widens over time. A decision made because both people feel God wants them to do something has power. What we decide, whether individually or together, affects who we become and where our marriage goes!

We have found Tim and Anne Evans’ book, Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage to be a helpful, practical resource for praying and hearing God together. They talk about the importance of not merely taking turns on who gets to decide, but rather, having the intention and patience to come to decisions together. Their method has helped us be more intentional in seeking God’s guidance.

You submit

Wait. Aren’t egalitarians against submission? Well, if Jesus is the head, then no, we aren’t against submission. In fact, we are for submission in marriage. Ephesians 5 (the infamously debated marriage passage) talks specifically about submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (v. 21). We wouldn’t be very good egalitarians if we didn’t submit to each other, now would we?

What does that look like? I think both complementarians and egalitarians can agree, when it comes to submitting to Jesus, we’re loved and cared for. Choosing to obey Jesus leads to life. Similarly, in marriage, Ryan tells me to wear a helmet when I ride my bike to work (safety first!), or I tell him to rest and drink bone broth when he’s feeling ill. We don’t have to submit to these things, but we do because we know the other is looking out for our best interests and has wisdom behind their suggestion.

You grow together

Learning to become one with each other and God has been, hands down, the most rewarding and fulfilling part of the last two years. (We’re planning to live to be over 100, so there are many years to look forward to!) It is exciting that we are on an eternal journey of transformation, of becoming like Christ. This incredible adventure requires growing together.

In an egalitarian marriage, neither spouse needs to be more spiritually mature or strong than the other in order to lead or submit. It is an equal playing field for growth as followers of Jesus. In Jesus’ explanations of the Kingdom of God, he uses agricultural metaphors like seeds (Matt 13, Luke 13), fruit (Matt 7, Mark 4), wheat (John 12), and a vineyard (John 15). All of these describe a process of growth that occurs when Jesus is the source of life. Growing individually and as a couple is a significant indicator that Jesus is the head of the marriage!

You dream together

Bottom line, Jesus is the ultimate dream, the vision. When we give our lives to him, he becomes our lens and our focus. For us, motivation and direction for growing as a couple has largely come from dreaming together about what our life might look like in Jesus. The vision we have for ourselves (or lack of it) influences our daily choices, and our daily choices determine where we end up. Without intentionality in either a shared vision or daily choices, a couple is reduced to two individuals.

Hebrews 12:2 talks about fixing our eyes on Jesus, the perfecter of our faith, who kept his focus on the joy set before him amidst his suffering. Life happens and challenges come, but a couple that dreams together, stays together. In an egalitarian marriage, that dream is both sought together and fought for together with shared responsibility.

You respect each other

I know, I know, respect is for the man and love is for the woman. However, there is truth in Aretha’s famous song (R-E-S-P-E-C-T!). But we don’t have to take her word for it. Let’s look at Ephesians 5 again. Paul is telling the men in this community of Ephesus to love their wives as they would love their own body (v.28). This was a radical concept for this culture! Women were not loved or respected. They were maybe a class above livestock. Maybe. Fortunately, egalitarian marriage goes beyond cultural norms.

Ephesians 5 encourages men, who have cultural power, to elevate women, who have no power, to a place of equal standing as fellow members of Christ’s body (v. 30). A big reason why our society still struggles to view women as equal, capable partners in the world (or the church for that matter), is because they are not fully respected in marriage.

A fundamental aspect of egalitarian marriage is having a deep respect for who each other is and what each other can do.

Yes, men can take care of the kids. Yes, women can be the primary financial provider for the family. But traditional roles don’t have to be switched to be egalitarian. Rather, how roles are determined comes out of respect and is based on who the spouse is in Christ, not their gender.

At the end of the day, egalitarian marriage is not defined by roles, it’s revealed by a couple’s unified pursuit of Jesus, their Lord and Savior, the only head of the Body of Christ.

Robin Rhine McDonald

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19 Comments

  • Thanks for this post! I’m wondering if you can clarify something for me. In the section about headship, it appears you’re saying you don’t agree that the man is the head of the wife, as the scripture says. I understand that he’s not the head, if we go by the common misconception that head means “authority” or ‘decision-maker.’ But is he not still the head, as the linked article about the Myths of Headship describes the meaning of ‘head’?

  • Robin, I think you are spot-on with these points, and as one-half of a couple who is coming up on anniversary #40, I can say that we have worked very hard to live out these truths, and it has benefitted both of us so much! We each came from traditional role-defined (in terms of gender) backgrounds and actually, with the adoption of our children, we probably looked pretty traditional in how we lived out our partnerships in marriage. However, we were committed to living out these same 6 principles in our marriage, and with the freedom to serve each other in Jesus combined with making decisions to choose activities and commitments that augmented our “oneness” instead of dividing us, we grew into experiencing an egalitarian marriage. The other important aspect is our theological belief about gender roles which we often share with couples during our pre-marriage counseling sessions, and that is this: “when it comes to Biblical roles of males and females, we are sure that Biblically, it is the role of men to begat children, and we are sure that it is the role of women to bear and breast-feed children; but that all other roles are negotiable based on calling and giftedness.” . … .a little humor injected into our conversations which often provided a wonderful launch pad for couples to think in creative ways about how God might lead them in their marriage. There is so much freedom and every couple is unique.
    Again, thanks for this piece; it serves so well younger and older couples alike!

  • Hi Robin. Thanks for writing this article. I find that my wife and I live all these things out in our marriage. I find that I’d still consider ourselves complimentarian, I used to share with people a spectrum for complimentarian and egalitarian. How do you think the two sides would differ if both were closer to the middle?

    Perhaps for me, as a husband, I still consider myself the spiritual leader in the sense of owning vision together with my wife for where we’re headed in our calling with God in our family. I don’t think she’s ever felt that I’ve chosen it on our behalf but it’s been together 100%. When it comes to submission, we mutually submit to each other, but she might defer to me when we’re at an impasse, which honestly has never come up for a weighty decision – more like light (food choices), but 99.9% of decision making is together fully.

    Am I just using the wrong term? Maybe I’m more egalitarian than complementarian?

    • Ih, I think that you do something typical of most modern Christians. You want the language of complementary language, but you live as egalitarians, at least most of the time. One of the things we were thrilled with 25 yrs ago in coming across egalitarians is that we no longer try to hide behind the language of something we don’t believe in and don’t live out. I still can’t find anything in the Bible that seems to support the idea of men being more responsible for women than the other way around. However, I believe that husbands and wives are responsible for each other as they are for themselves. We have yet to find a situation where one of us has to pull rank. There are many other ways for mature Christians to solve problems.

      Keep reading and thinking and see if you agree that you might as well come to use the proper words. Very glad to hear that you are there!!

      • I wonder if we got an egalitarian and a complementarian together to talk through distinctives, where theyd be that different. I’ve no problem with changing the label from complementarian to egalitarian, it’s more trying to understand their distinctive. We both view each gender as equal. Most of the difference is in roles but I think they’re fluid. When reading this article they sound very similar:

        http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2014/march-week-4/complementarian-versus-egalitarian.html

        • I think that a good place to show a difference between what both basically think about men and women. Comps tend to say that the female is supposed to be subordinate to the male for one of two reasons. Either we were created that way, with the woman being a fix to the “oops” in just having one gender; or woman is to be submissive as the results of the Fall. Both point to the idea that submission is unilateral and universal. It applies to all people everywhere at all times. Men and women are not really equal. This type of thinking can lead to believe in a permanent subordination of the Son to the Father, therefore twisting the Trinity as a side effect.

          Egalitarians would say that male and female were both created in the image of God, and that we both fully reflect that. We don’t believe that biology is destiny, in that men are from Mars and women from Venus (such horrible theology!) Gifts of the spirit do not come in pink and blue, and that being born a male doesn’t make you leader. Only the gifts do that. We believe that the death of Jesus on the Cross not only frees all of us who believe from our sin, but also over turns any ranking we may have in the world, and even more so in the church.

          I really believe that at this time, even those couples who cling to the concept of complementarianism act as mutual partners. When we all put Christ as the top of the list, I don’t think there would be much of a difference in our day to day lives. Sadly a lot of comps think it is more important for men to be in charge than anything else. It’s a tough thing, but basically, if you believe men have something more than a woman, I would call you a comp. But if you are working it out, who cares what I would call you!!

          • I hear you Ann. Do you think there could be wrong perceptions of each side? Perhaps comps have a less-than-correct view of egalitarians and vice versa? In the article I posted, it says comps see :

            “men and women are both of equal, intrinsic value before God— and are also both of equal value and importance within the marriage. However, they are understood to have different, complementary roles or functions, with the husband serving as the spiritual leader in the family.”

            In my marriage, my wife is not subordinate to me, but this is something she trusts me with – to spiritually lead and perhaps we see that responsibility as something I am learning to embrace and lead out in. And it is something she desires for me to lead out in – but we are both in it 100%, full partnership.

          • It is hard to really understand ” the other side” of any debate, isn’t it? Language can be used to confuse as well as diffuse. This is one time when that really seems to be the problem. We throw around words like headship and equality here in ways that we don’t use them any place else.

            For example, when we use the word “head” in business, we do mean that the head of a company has full authority over the company. When we use equality about most relationships, we mean that the partners both have full authority. However, it seems to most of us that those words like head, leader, authority, etc., have little asterisks with them when comps speak of them in marriage. They are like the double speak in Animal Farm. We are equal, but men are somehow more equal. Head is no longer the same, but involves into some kind of benevolent spiritual headship, that really isn’t taught by the Bible. I could give many more examples of where it seems that comps twist things to sound one way to women, yet have a different meaning.

            I do not think that this is really intentional or meant to be nasty. I don’t think comps are stupid or mean. It’s just that we are so trained to use these words that we don’t ever think about what we are saying. Many are simply convinced that they must behave this way to be a “real man.” Had a guy tell me once that this “headship” was a terrible burden to bear, and he didn’t appreciate it when I reminded him that the Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens!!

            For many, this language enables those with the upper hand to keep it. Women are taught things like that they are easily deceived, and that they are rebelling against God to question this. For those that are indeed easily deceived by teaching like this, it becomes a matter of fact, they do not trust their own decision making ability or see themselves as mature persons, but instead fall into the woman-child mindset.

            Most of us have suffered at the manipulation of language to be kept in our place. It has been over 25 yrs since this happened to me. John and I have always considered ourselves equal partners, but we always felt pressured to act differently. We tried it a couple of times, but it simply was not allowing us to use the gifts God had given us. We were both miserable. The last time was when we were at a small church where I was the only one even half able to do some of the music. However, this was not to be because the pastor considered that my choosing the hymns was taking upon myself too much authority over men. That is when we found egalitarian scholarship, and it has given my husband and me both the confidence we lost while being forced to be who we are not.

            To me, it is a matter of making the words and actions say the same thing. I am a sticker for integrity! That is why many of us have put in a lot of effort to understand what the Bible really means. I have had people accuse me of cutting things out the Bible that I do not like, which couldn’t be much further than the truth. If I wanted to ignore those passages, I would not have spent so much time concentrating on them. I would have simply dismissed them as not really being what Paul said.

            These are very emotionally laden subjects, and hard to discuss. So many of us have been hurt so badly. Many of us are still working through the pain, and it becomes so easy to paint comps with the same evil brush. I really try to not do that. I believe that most are good folks who love their spouses, and feel that they are being true to Scripture. It only takes a few rotten apples, as you know!

            Well, I will stop here as I am being distracted by the silent version of Ben Hur, and it is hard to do anything except watch!!

            I am really enjoying this discussion. I hope you are and are learning as well as I am. It’s a good thing to try to talk about these things calmly! I think I have been through enough with the subject to be past the gut reaction. I am also sure that I do not need to change my opinion, my life or my language. I also do not have to make others change theirs. I just need to speak the truth and let others come to their own decisions. Have a good day, and say hello to your wife for me!!

    • I think it helps to remember that these views exist on a continuum, and often we move along that continuum over our lifetime. It does sound like you have an egalitarian marriage in practice!

  • We will have anniversary #40 in 3 weeks, and we find the same things. It never bothered us about who does what. Neither of us think we have to be in charge. Decisions are made by the person with the most knowledge, or are affected most. When we can’t agree, we take time to pray/think/study more. I love it when people say that someone has to be in charge. I ask “WHY,” then try to not laugh at the looks on their faces or motor boat noises. (You know, “but but but but but…”) People assume that I am fighting my husband all the time, or think he isn’t worth listening to, but nothing is farther from the truth. I find the twisted interpretation of Scripture that makes a relationship of equals into a hierarchy more and more disgusting.

    • I don’t get the “someone has to be in charge” thing! Two people can have an equal business partnership and no one seems to insist that one be in charge. Friendships aren’t dependent on someone being in charge. Even more likely to work in marriage, where there is a covenant relationship!

      • In Hebrew, the word for “helper” used in Genesis 2:18 and 20 is ezer (pronounced “ay-zer”), and it is always and only used in the Old Testament in the context of vitally important and powerful acts of rescue and support.
        The Hebrew doesn’t support the understanding of ‘somebody being in charge’. You are quite right Gail of speaking ‘covenant relationship’.

  • Thank you Robin – you have thought and lived this through. Well written and well done. I am an old woman, a widow – and all I can remember and cherish of my marriage was love. With love towards Lord God, with love to each other and with love towards our children – we had a beautiful life – thanks be to God.

  • Thank you for your blog post Robin. I have been married since December and my husband and I are egalitarians. I don’t understand why people want to settle for complementarian married. It is so freeing to have an egalitarian marriage. I also like how you pointed out that the submission is something we do voluntarily rather than something we have to do. A lot of people seem to miss this. And really it is so much more meaningful when we choose to submit to our spouses than if we are forced to.

  • This is such a timeless topic, because for many couples gender roles are more entrenched than feminist ideals. Marriage is a private arena, and we need to keep bringing it out for public debate and discussion because of that (particularly with domestic violence such a secret yet rampant reality).

    Thanks for putting things in terms of character, because two people of character can become egalitarian even if they don’t start out that way.

  • 28 years in I know for sure my marriage is egalitarian. It started off this way. I wrote about this on my blog in post entitled Through the Lens of Marriage but I was way more succinct.

    Thanks for all you do.

  • “A fundamental aspect of egalitarian marriage is having a deep respect for who each other is and what each other can do.” Yes!

    Thank you for explaining how “a couple’s unified pursuit of Jesus” is reflected in an egal marriage.

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