Egalitarian Marriage: More Than An Equal Division of Roles

Hannah Helms

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Egalitarian Marriage

Egalitarian Marriage

On the third Wednesday of each month I set up camp in a conference room at the hospital where I work. I set out water bottles, a tray of cookies, and boxes of tissue. I post signs throughout the hallway, and then sit down and wait. As the clock nears 6:00 pm they start to arrive – the surviving spouses of the hospice patients I have served. Sometimes they smile when they see me, other times they make it through the door just barely, a bewildered and tired look in their eyes.

It seems odd that I, a 29 year old with less than 5 years of marriage under my belt, would be tasked with running a support group for bereaved spouses. In reality I do very little to ease the burden of grief. I give group members permission to talk about their loved ones and their loss. I sit and bear witness; sometimes I have to tell myself to stay and be present, and other times I am captivated and drink in their stories.

The latter was the case with a man who attended my group in March. He was old enough to be my parent and then some, but by far the youngest person in the group. He was also the most reserved. He coughed and cleared his throat, staring at his water bottle all the while, and then said this:

Most of our marriage, we were in a foxhole. We were fighting — not each other — we had seven kids and life was chaotic. But that was a part of our togetherness. We were a team and we faced so many challenges together. Sometimes she faced a challenge and I supported her, and sometimes I had a challenge and she supported me.”

He went on to share about how he and his wife had lost their first baby, well over 40 years ago, and commented on it and said,

That was something that we went through together. We went through that loss together, and we shared that grief. And we did that with all sorts of things. We survived them together, because we had each other. But now that she is gone, who do I do that with? How do I go through those things without her?”

The other people in the group nodded, offered affirmation and validation of his experience, and the conversation shifted as others began to share their own accounts of marriage and loss. I listened, but also replayed his words in my head on a loop, memorized them, and wrote them down as soon as the group ended.

It was the first and only time that I have heard someone explain their marriage in a way that fully captures the essence of Genesis 2:18: “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”’

Like many of you, I’ve spend hours reading commentaries and articles about this single passage and the implications that it has for men and women in marriage. Like many of you, I’ve come to understand that the word “helper” is a poor translation of the original Hebrew, and that what word really means is a “a strength that is equal and corresponding to”.

The challenge lies in actually living out this beautiful image of marriage as egalitarians trying to figure out what works best for us, as we move together toward God. My husband and I try to figure out who does what chores, who gets to sleep and who gets up with the toddlers, and who gets to kill bugs. He asked me out, and proposed, and offered to take my last name, but I took his because I wanted to.

We’ve figured out a balance of sex that keeps us both content. We pray together when we aren’t too tired, and someday, when we aren’t playing one-on-one defense with the children maybe we will get to read through scripture together. We go through a marriage book or attend a retreat every other year or so.

We are doing all of the things that good egalitarians do, right?

Ben and I, like many of our peers navigating the early parts of marriage, have spent so much time looking at marriage from the front end of things, with the idea that figuring out a plan that works will set us up for success. The big picture of marriage is often neglected.

When I look at marriage from the other end, from the perspective that the man in my grief group shared of  marriage that had reached completion, I see something so much richer than an equal division of roles and labor.

A marriage that truly reflects God’s intentions in Genesis 2:18 is one in which both partners stand with and for one another, growing together in an intimate camaraderie as followers of Christ.

This makes the most sense to me. The marriage relationships that I most admire seem to reflect this dynamic. My parents, friends in my church community, and this man who came to my grief group all have relationships with their spouse that are mutually strengthening and build up one another.

The truth is that I actually have this in my marriage. Underneath the nitty gritty logistics of raising kids, managing a house, figuring out finances, and navigating our in-laws, Ben and I have a deep and abiding sense that we are on the same team. We’ve fostered this dynamic since the day we got married, when we said yes to one another. As we’ve continued in our marriage, we’ve found that creating our Togetherness is best achieved by continuing to say “yes” each day and choosing one another each day.

Hannah Helms

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7 Comments

  • Thank you for such a sweet piece of truth, Hannah. I shouldn’t have read this on the plane–can’t find any Kleenex. And thank you for your tender care as people move through the loss of their loved one–you are an angel in disguise, no doubt, to someone every day.

  • In his excellent book Counter Culture, David Platt writes eloquently on a husband’s responsibility to lay down his life for his wife. Paul Washer also teaches with great wisdom on the topic.

  • “the male dominance rules of patriarchy/complementarity tend to not “see” women for who they are as individuals. They don’t see their humanity. All they see is whether or not she is fitting their accepted molds.”…

    Yes, and if they don’t fit the mold they suddenly do begin to see them and, in my experience, they react very negatively.

    I was invisible for almost 30 years until I was in a para church organization where I had a responsibility that rested on me alone. As things worked out, I had to speak up and say that I discovered that one of the men was not handling business matters in an acceptable way and his actions needed to be corrected…as soon as I spoke up, I discovered that these men were no friends of mine…and that protection of this virtual stranger was more important than I was. I had known these men much longer than this newcomer, but he was a man (one of the boys, I guess)…I was falsely accused of trying to destroy the group ( ridiculous, since I had done the most work -voluntarily-to keep the group going) and it was only when some of the men discovered that I was right that a few came to support me..this was so distressing, to discover that I was a nothing and a nobody to these men I had thought were my brothers in Christ…I gave them an ultimatum and left the group…but I promise you, if I had been a man this would have been a very different story…in fact their behavior also disgusted my husband who entirely supported me…I guess even questioning a man is not biblical for a woman and that they expected me to be quiet about his behaviour (how entirely arrogant and dangerous is that). Where ever is one to find liberty in Christ in a church? Now my husband and I do not attend any church and I have no interest in starting up in a new one..instead I occasionally invite Christian women to my house for discussions and we have a great time praising the Lord for His goodness, but I feel entirely driven out of ‘institutional’ church forever…and regret the wasted years that I thought I had a church Family…what an illusion that was! Complementarianism is deceptive and most women don’t know they are in a Complementarian church unless they have studied the subject…believe me they don’t warn you of this…they are so nice until YOU dare to break the mold in which you didn’t know you were encased. Beware, ladies.

  • Excellent words, Hannah. And also a wonderful ministry you offer.

    Part of the gross mistakes of patriarchy/complementarianism is that their rules make the assumption that every woman is the same with the same needs, the same general gifts, and even possibly the same weaknesses. Your observations show us that indeed every individual whether male or female is a different type of human being. Thus when we come together in marriage we have to assess what we individually bring to the union and figure out how to work together. When we fit ourselves together in reality of who each person is, then this beautiful balance happens.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I wholeheartedly agree that knowing ourselves and what be have to offer our spouse in marriage is a key to building a beautiful marriage relationship.

    • Thank you tiro3…yes we must never assume anything about a people group…it can be nothing but insulting. This article is a beautiful picture of how men and women can live together and actually be happy together…”rules” just make assumptions that are not real. No one fits into a mold…we each have our own individuality and it is the discovery of your spouse’s individuality that makes a marriage interesting…molds just make life boring and unbearable, especially if only the woman has to fit a mold while ‘boys will be boys’…with freedom to be themselves…as in Complementarianism.

      Sometimes it takes many years before you realize you have had an egalitarian marriage…but it only takes a short time to know you are in a Complementarian marriage…for you find yourself in a trap of misunderstanding and unacceptable demands.

      • so true Judy. A similar thing happens in our other relationships as well. Those living by confining gender rules will try to confine single women to certain activities that are deemed appropriate for them. The sad but interesting thing I am seeing is that the male dominance rules of patriarchy/complementarity tend to not “see” women for who they are as individuals. They don’t see their humanity. All they see is whether or not she is fitting their accepted molds.

        This is why we have heard in the past how complementarians expect women to live by these confinements though it may be hard. They have often remarked on how hard it is but how blessed it will make their lives. Of course this is the opposite of what Scripture says.

        Jer. 15:16 Your words were found, and I ate them, And Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; For I am called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts.

        Phil. 4:7 and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

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