When I first met my husband, I wanted nothing to do with him. For a start, he was a Sydney Anglican, and I was a Pentecostal. While both Christian traditions, this meant (in my mind at least) that while my church believed women and men were equally suited to ministry, his considered men teachers and leaders, but women assistants and helpers. The Sydney diocese was known for its “Headship Theology”. I had experienced plenty of misogyny in my life and didn’t want any more.
Tim was a popular worship leader and youth music director in his Anglican Church. And he wasn’t concerned by these differences. Following our first meeting, he told all his friends that I was going to marry him, and I got the nickname “the wife”.
That felt awkward. I don’t remember our first meeting (apparently I prayed for global justice). But I do remember the second, in which he bragged about kissing not one but TWO country schoolgirls on a six-hour bus trip from his Australian outback town “Dubbo” to the city. I immediately imagined a sign on his head that said “PLAYER. BEWARE.”
So, I avoided him. As in, I literally walked the other direction whenever he appeared. But he figured out ways to remain quietly in my vicinity. For example, I was the lead singer of a band. And he’d conveniently appear after every rehearsal, coaxing me into conversations with his brother the bass player. This game went on for months.
When I finally caved, I was dizzy. I’d flown into Sydney from France that morning, and had to sing at a gig. It was my first experience of room-spinning jetlag. I needed someone to drive, and help me up stairs without posting it on social media.
The truth was, I needed reliability (or constancy) more than I knew. I had big vision but struggled with follow through. My good ideas and strong passion would quickly fade when not affirmed by my peer group. My greatest issue, despite all the applause I received, was confidence.
When we finally started dating, Tim wanted to define our future relationship. The Anglican leaders around him had encouraged him to think intentionally towards lifetime commitment. But, he knew that if the marriage we envisioned was ultimately a limitation, I would choose singleness.
The extent of his dedication was breath taking. I explained to him that after a string of controlling men and painful interactions, my ability to dream about marriage had in fact died. It was not that I didn’t want to be loved, or to love. I just was sick of making myself “loveable”.
I had many traits deemed “unfeminine” by my culture: a visionary or futuristic impulse, a global orientation, an academic mind, and a strong-willed leadership capacity. And yet, I was often deemed “too girly” for the church. It was exhausting holding these binaries together.
To my surprise, one day I found Tim (who was working as a tradesman) in my Pentecostal Bible College. He sat down next to me in class, smiled and opened his notebook. It was only weeks afterwards that he signed up for Dr. Clifton’s infamous ethics class and started declaring himself a “feminist”. This amused but also disturbed me. What on earth did it mean?
In becoming a couple, we had to take the resources offered to us from both Christian traditions, and sort through them for our own future lives.
We quickly discarded “Headship Theology”. This theology is also called “complementarianism”, as it believes the two genders complement each other in their difference. It is promoted by Wayne Grudem and John Piper, and the NeoCalvinist movement. We could see its commitment to biblical truth. But even at its best the teaching omits many other relevant biblical passages, focusing upon a few apostolic teachings (1 Cor 11, Eph 5:28, 1 Pet 3:7). In it, a husband exercises sacrifice, and a wife submission, but never the other way around.
As Tim and I reread scriptural passages on what a marriage should look like, we discussed them in light of real examples. We agreed that those who applied scriptures most thoughtfully often represented the “egalitarian” position, where both partners in the marriage were entirely equal.
Often, our complementarian friends drew upon set understandings of marriage that didn’t fit our personal strengths or possible contributions. They seemed based more upon 1950s traditional roles than biblical texts.
Equality wasn’t a cultural concern for us. It was something we believed central to Christianity; entrenched in the Imago Dei, the doctrine of God’s image found in human personhood. The intrinsic worth of each individual is the same regardless of any social hierarchies.
Although we could see that God established hierarchies within Scripture, they were often considered impermanent, and linked to character building. God raises kings, but also deposes them at will (Dan 2:21).
The one exception was Israel, a nation described as God’s special chosen ones, or favorites. Yet, Jesus had in fact died to “graft in” the unrighteous. While Judaism excluded Gentiles, within Christianity they were adopted into the family.
So it was our systematic rather than biblical theology that helped us decide that Eph 5:21 was a passage relevant to marriage – and that Christ-like submission was intended for both partners.
About one year into our relationship, Tim knelt down under the stars by the water, and proposed in the least “Headship Theology” way possible. He nervously pulled out a box with a beautiful ring, opening it so I could see. He started to speak.”Tanya, in life, there will be sacrifices… ”
For me, this was terrifying. I wanted the ring, yes. And I wanted to marry him. But was this a last minute hidden clause?
“…Like what?” I asked, warily.
“Just sacrifices! Seriously! Can I keep going?” he retorted.
“Nope. You’re going to have to outline them,” I said.
“Not specific sacrifices, Tanya. We’re both going to have to make sacrifices along the way.”
I sighed. “Tim, you brought me to this cliff to say something. So, say it. If you list sacrifices you’d like me to make, then I will seriously consider them.”
Tim stared at me. He slowly stood up and walked away. Turning around, he came back to where I was standing and knelt down again. “Tanya, would you to marry me?” he asked.
“Yes”, I said.
The word “sacrifice” is now said with great amusement in our house.
We both expect to sacrifice, and submit. We believe that’s the biblical way to build a good marriage, even if we have to agree to disagree with our many complementarian friends. And so far, it’s worked.