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When Marriage Isn’t Mutual

support signsMegan | The CBE Scroll
Finding oneself married to a non-egalitarian spouse, whether male or female, can be a challenging road to navigate. Consider these case studies.

Norma and Charlie:

It was love at first sight. Norma and Charlie’s eyes, in all actuality, met “across a crowded room” at their conservative denomination’s annual meeting. Life for the Browns began, as for most entering into marriage, with delight and optimism.

The Browns’ church held strongly to the view that “women should be silent” (1 Cor. 14:34), and that all leadership in the church should be male. The congregation was taught that God was male, as Jesus called him “Father” (John 10:30). And, for the first years of their marriage, Norma obediently adhered to the teachings of her church and to the lifestyle she had experienced in her patriarchal childhood home. She submitted to Charlie as he made all of the family decisions and controlled the finances, and she embraced her role as a stay-at-home mother.

But then Norma’s neighbor invited her to attend a women’s Bible study, providing her with new friends whom she began to trust. For the first time in her life, Norma learned that the Bible demonstrates that God has feminine characteristics, likening God to a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14); a nursing mother (Isa. 49:15–16); a mother hen (Luke 14:34); and a mother who comforts her small child (Ps. 131:2). Norma and Charlie were taught that man, and not woman, was created in the image of God, implying that women were “less than,” and that their husbands’ “desires” must be obeyed. But now Norma was learning that women are also made in God’s image. She read that Jesus respected women, affirming their dignity at a time in history when women were considered property and virtually had no voice. It amazed her that Jesus gave a woman authority to speak his words to the disciples (John 20:17).

These fresh perspectives gave Norma a whole new view of God, and she began to love her Savior in a deeply personal way. She felt profound relief and rejuvenation and longed to share these feelings with Charlie. But how would he respond? How would Norma live out her new convictions about mutuality in marriage if her spouse disagreed?

Paul and Mary:

“Bridal school” was the path Mary’s parents intended her to walk when they sent her to a one-year Bible school after high school to meet a young man with similar denominational roots. Instead, she met Paul, an egalitarian, and despite her family’s objections, Mary stood up to her parents and married him.

Paul loves his wife and is attracted not only to her beauty, but also to her tender character. When they study Scripture together, he marvels at her insight and wisdom. Yet, he learns that the “gentle spirit” he first saw in Mary, who was raised as a complementarian, was actually her attempt to be the passive wife she believes is taught in the Bible and has seen modeled by her mother. Paul views her as an equal in their relationship, but Mary feels conflicted by his affirmation, having never witnessed this picture of partnership in her parental home.

Paul sees potential in Mary that she cannot see in herself, and he longs for her to live boldly and share in the decision-making for their family. How might he respond to his wife’s long-held and deeply rooted passivity? As an egalitarian man, how can he encourage her to use her gifts when she believes God intends very different roles for men and women?

* * * * *

How might those in situations similar to that of Norma and Paul navigate these challenges? What practical advice and encouragment do you have?

(Be sure to also check out Mutuality vol. 19, issue 2 (Summer 2012) to read Morven’s insights for men and women who are married to non-egalitarians.)

Author: Morven
Dr. Morven R. Baker, DMin, PCC-S, NCC, has been in practice for over twenty years in both institutional and private practice settings. She is founding president of Ashland Women’s Counseling Center (healingforwoundedhearts.org), where she deals with the range of issues faced by women, but especially those arising from sexual abuse and domestic violence. A published author, Dr. Baker is a popular speaker and teacher, having delivered classes, lectures, and worskhops in the US and abroad. Find her blog at morvensblog.com.

Her blog can be viewed here.


  1. Megan Megan
    Comment #96462 posted July 11, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Thanks for the article and the post, Morven!

    I think what really strikes me about these situations is the importance of having a supportive community–marriages are healthier when trusted, godly people are welcomed by the couple for prayer, encouragment, accountability, and just to bounce ideas off of one another.

  2. Adela
    Comment #96464 posted July 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    It’s so vital to have a supportive community- I can’t agree more but what if you don’t have such community? Looks like a submissive wife will just know to submit and wait, pray and hope that God will speak to her husband. Or can she actually do something more?

    • Red
      Comment #96467 posted July 13, 2012 at 8:57 am

      In reply to Adela’s comment, and the question in general; my parents were somewhat similar to the Paul and Mary situation. My mom was raised in a fairly traditional household, so when she and Dad got engaged, she offered to let him be the leader, but he wanted them to make all decisions together and share responsibilities.

      From what I understand, the pivotal thing my dad did was just to BE HONEST. He was really honest with my mom about what he believed and how he felt. When she saw how serious he was about it, that probably didn’t change her mind right away, but it gave her serious pause. Because it was so important to him, she agreed, and then found out from her own personal experience that such a marriage not only worked, but thrived.

      Another thing that shaped my mother (both my parents, really) was that my dad’s passion and calling was in a field that was not very lucrative. My mom didn’t want to demand that he leave the field he felt called to, so she provided a second income at her job even when I was an infant. She and my dad arranged their schedule so that when one worked, the other was home with me. She saw from first-hand experience that BOTH of them could thrive in a job and being a stay-at-home parent.

      So to sum up my advice, it would be this: be honest (not pushy) with your spouse, and see if they will meet you part-way in certain lifestyle changes (even small ones). Once they see for themselves how it works, it will likely change their minds.

      My mom doesn’t call herself an egalitarian, but she has essentially lived like one for the past thirty-some years. When she hears complementarian speak now, she just rolls her eyes and goes about her own business. :)

  3. Adela
    Comment #96465 posted July 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    I look forward to a reply from a man who has successfuly convinced his wife that she can be more than just a homemaker. And that God is the one who actually entitled her with rulling the world.

    • Comment #96471 posted July 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Liz and I talked about this and while I did not have to encourage her to be egalitarian I did have to encourage her to step out and use her gifts in church life. I also had to cover for her when she was criticised by those who felt that women shouldn’t be doing the things in church that I encouraged her to do. It took a long time for folks to appreciate that Liz was able to do things because God had gifted her to and that it was OK to have a woman doing what was normally the domain of men only. In pioneering this in a conservative local church and denominational setting we both came in for a lot of misunderstanding and sometimes outright condemnation because some saw us as being dangerously heretical. Together we weathered the storms and Liz is an amazingly confident and capable person in her ability to enunciate egalitarian beliefs and use her management skills.

  4. Susan
    Comment #96466 posted July 13, 2012 at 8:23 am

    For the egalitarian man trying to convince his wife…I would think most egalitarian men would know other egalitarian couples (from church maybe) who could help persuade the wife. Spending time with these couples, seeing how they do things, will likely carry more weight than someone trying to talk her into it. As a female who became egalitarian as an adult, for me seeing others whom I respected living out a non-traditional view of family helped me to see it in a positive light.

  5. Comment #96468 posted July 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    It’s an odd situation really. Comp women believe they must obey, and yield to their husbands’ desires in everything. But how does that work when he is telling her he wants her to step up and use her gifts and skills in the Lord. It puts the comp wife in a sort of turmoil. If she goes against her husband she is not being submissive. Of course, the egal husband is not going to demand her obedience either, but be encouraging, honoring, supportive, etc.

  6. Terri
    Comment #96469 posted July 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    I notice the comments mostly address the egalitarian husband/traditional wife matchup. I’m the egalitarian wife married to a traditional husband. I have no answers. We live in a conservative rural area and go to a conservative church — there aren’t a lot of choices out here. I can only tell you we have had years of fierce conflict that have settled into a “ships passing in the night” marriage — we avoid talking about issues because we only end up arguing. His personality is pushy by nature, and I’m a lone wolf — I neither lead nor follow, I do my own thing.

    He’s a good man. He sincerely believes he’s the head (forgetting that I came into the marriage with a well-functioning head already) and all that. There just is no getting around it, and it has gutted our marriage. I love him and respect him as a person; he has much love and compassion for others, helps others in need, and is unusually smart and talented in a wide array of skills. He has good leadership skills and a great sense of humor. But there’s just no getting around the way he views me and treats me — never as an equal. I can push, and have an equal say in decisions, but it’s not because he sees us as equals.

    There is literally no way to get respect from a die-hard traditional husband. Not the respect one gives to a peer. I can’t describe the pain of seeing how he treats his male friends and then comparing it to how he treats me. It’s as if I have nothing to contribute to this marriage from my neck up. It is agonizing. All his dreams of a wonderful, traditional marriage with love and warmth and harmony dashed; all my dreams of a wonderful, egalitarian partnership with love and warmth and harmony dashed too.

    We aren’t getting divorced. That’s not on the table. It means our dreams are gone for good. He is going on his sincere convictions, and so am I.

    Please, if you’re an unmarried egalitarian woman, don’t, do not, marry a traditional man. You’ll be thinking he’s such a good person you can make it work anyway. You’ll be thinking he’ll change when he sees how competent and smart you are. Things like that. He truly, truly won’t change. If he sees how smart you are, he’ll try that much harder to keep you in your place. It’s not evil intent (necessarily — sometimes it is), but it’s what a traditional man thinks he should be doing to police his household into what he believes are the proper roles. It will break your heart and his. Dreams of a partnership and dreams of headship cannot coexist without pain and destruction.

    Forgive me if I’ve said too much here.

    • Comment #96470 posted July 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm

      What a sad, sad situation Terri but what you have experienced in your own marriage is not in isolation. Liz and I attempted to model and encourage egalitarian marriages in our conservative church situation. We counselled folks in an egalitarian way when we prepared couples for marriage but as I look back on 35 years of ministry I note that the marriages that failed are the ones where the man believed that he was the rightful head of the marriage. Even where women started out attempting to be submissive it soon wore them down and, as in your own case, the men became more hardened and determined to be in charge. It is a tribute to both of you that you still see the good things in one another and want to keep the marriage intact but it must be very hard for you Terri to live each day feeling undervalued. Traditional men do change, but it is very rare.

    • Megan Megan
      Comment #96479 posted July 16, 2012 at 8:14 am

      Terri, thank you for sharing. My heart aches with you, sister. You’re in my prayers today.

    • Adela
      Comment #96481 posted July 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      Terri, it’s heartbreaking to hear your story. :( I wish things were different for you. And I applaud you for looking at the brighter side of each other. Thank you for sharing and for the advice. I will be praying for a miracle change still.

  7. Comment #96472 posted July 15, 2012 at 12:43 am

    As I read both these scenarios, it occurred to me that the answer could be the same.

    In both instances, people were doing and being what they believed scripture required of them. So, the task of the wife or husband would be to suggest that maybe the bible has something else to say about the marriage relationship.

    In the case of the submissive wife, it could be seen as easier to adjust to her husband’s way of thinking, because that would be part of giving due reverence to her husband and allowing him to take the lead in spiritual matters.

    Even in the story where the wife was coming into new freedom as she studied the scriptures, she could affirm his wanting to follow the bible in their relationship and could encourage him to look at the new ways she was learning about what God has in mind for couples. She could demonstrate this with a gentle spirit and lots of praise for his wanting to be a man of God. (This of course, would be if he was indeed a godly man and not just using the bible to assert his authority)

  8. Romans
    Comment #96474 posted July 15, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Well, I don’t see the answer as the same, simply because what they each feel that scripture is asking them to do is completely opposite of one another. They are not the same.

    As was mentioned in the case of an egal man, a woman who believes she must obey her husband, will in actuality be obeying him, by speaking up and developing her talents. So, it is consistent with her beliefs. That transition will likely be easier for her to accept, than for a man to give up his sense of entitlement.

    Getting a man who believes in his headship to start seeing his wife as an equal, imo, would take far longer to accomplish because it’s not in line with his understanding of Scripture at all. In fact, he may even see it as being Adam listening to Eve when she gives him the fruit.

    I agree with the one who spoke of community. Prayer and being led by the Spirit, is really all that the wife can do in that situation. But pray that Godly men, who believe in true equality, and live it out, will come along his path. Because a man that he respects, is all that will get through to him.

    The other thing is, God can and does speak loudly and clearly in dreams sometimes. So again, that’s where prayer comes in.

  9. Comment #96475 posted July 15, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    As an egal, I have talked with a comp husband at the request of his egal wife. I needed to explain that it is possible to have a high regard for the Bible’s authority and be egalitarian. And she needed a man to be able to say it as some versions of the hierarchical teaching invalidates a woman being able to teach a man, which is a shame.

    • Michelle
      Comment #96480 posted July 16, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      Wow. I am so glad you were willing do that, Don. Thank you.

  10. Comment #96476 posted July 15, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    “Getting a man who believes in his headship to start seeing his wife as an equal, imo, would take far longer to accomplish because it’s not in line with his understanding of Scripture at all. In fact, he may even see it as being Adam listening to Eve when she gives him the fruit.”

    Yes, I agree with the above. That is certainly the most difficult obstacle for a man to overcome. Somehow the Spirit needs to break through that ‘Scriptural’ barrier to help the man to see that there are other ways of interpreting these male headship texts.

    In Alan F. Johnson’s book, ‘How I changed my mind about women in Leadership,’ it is interesting to note how many prominent, complementarian evangelicals actually changed their minds about this issue because they had gifted daughters. Certainly men are more likely to be moved by the experiences of other men but a genuinely Godly man will listen to the prompting of the Spirit, even when it comes through the discreet actions of his wife, daughters or other courageous women who may already be in leadership. Or, in the case of marriage, a man, who walks in humility, may learn by observing other couples he has respect for who are egalitarian and who conduct their family life in an attractive way.

  11. trish
    Comment #96482 posted July 17, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Terri. You’re incredible. Much love and prayers for your journey.

    Don, I can imagine your intervention would have been so helpful to that couple. But it must not be a comfortable thing to do -speak to another man about how he conducts a marriage that he believes he is the head of. How can more men feel empowered to speak to other men about this stuff? One of the biggest obstacles I encounter is equality being seen as a “women’s issue”.

  12. Comment #96483 posted July 18, 2012 at 6:19 am

    As I see it, as a believer, I am called to speak for the voiceless, the disempowered, where they cannot. And where I cannot speak, I hope someone else will speak for me.

    • Michelle
      Comment #96485 posted July 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm

      I believe that is true. I have found it difficult to articulate why I believe that empathy (being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes without having been in their situation: not to be confused with sympathy) is a Christian trait. You may have moved me one step closer to being able to articulate why I think that.

      It’s because if I am to speak for the voiceless, I must be able to understand something of where they are coming from, even if/when I have not been there, myself.

      When I say that something is a Christian trait/value, I don’t mean to imply that only Christians have or value it, rather, that as Christians we *should* value and encourage it.

  13. Comment #96487 posted July 19, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Praying for you Terri.

    Trying to find a way to break through wrong concepts of self and others is really all of what Jesus does in churches. It takes community. One on one discussion is very limited.

    Right now there are some men in my church who view women as inferior, as incapable of teaching men, as incapable of rightly perceiving the truths of Scripture. Our pastor is slowing seeking to change this by supporting women teaching, praising women who teach and preach, and here and there pointing out better ways of community. Just to get a few small points across takes several people speaking truths of Scripture at the right timing. At a Bible study, the pastor and I have had several opportunities to correct thinking. If only one of us speaks it is not as powerful as when two or three of us speak. So, when one of us addresses something the pastor and others will support that one’s observations with Scripture and more observations.

    At this moment in time, it is the most effect way I see to bring truth — teamwork! Men who view women as inferior, must see them being just as effective in ministry as men. And this rolls off into the marriage as well. They must hear and hear often the testimonies of how couples work out things together and how superior it is to one person handling it all.

  14. Comment #96488 posted July 19, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Thinking of Don talking to a guy about his marriage, I have found that it is tricky to address the issue with wives who are in a hierarchical marriage because it’s like suggesting they ‘disobey’ their husbands. It can be seen as driving a wedge between them when you just talk to the wife about her husband’s (supposed) oppressive manner.

    Often it’s better to have the subject come up in a bible study and address it generally, rather than one on one.

  15. Comment #96489 posted July 20, 2012 at 6:11 am

    Yes, I agree it can be tricky. In the situation where I did it, the husband wanted assurance that one could accept the Bible as authoritative and also be egal, he was not there at the time, but she was. She was testifying that a person could be both a Bible-believing Christian and an egal, so he was willing to listen to another witness about this possibility. It is true that some who are egal do not accept the Bible as authoritative, rather they are going with the culture.

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