My wife and I are partners

When it comes to changing diapers, I wish my wife and I weren’t egalitarian, but we are. Our marriage is an equal partnership. We listen for God’s guidance together and apart. We communicate our needs and express our desires openly. We sacrifice for one another and support each other’s careers. We divvy up roles based on skill-sets and availability. We both do laundry, make beds, cook, take out trash, clean the litter box, fold clothes, mow the lawn, put our child to bed, water the flowers, get the mail, pay bills, work full time jobs in ministry, and pray before meals. This is our way of life. We’re partners.

We don’t live this way because my leadership style is so benevolent that as the “man of the house” I allow my wife’s desires to be heard. I’m not the boss. My wife doesn’t wear the pants in the family. It’s preposterous for us to think God’s dissatisfied with this way of life. We’re partners.

Not everyone agrees. Recently an article emerged in the blogosphere from rock star pastor David Platt about complementarity. He preached at Southern Seminary’s chapel service and said the way forward for Christians is a stronger commitment to male headship and wifely submission. He thinks this is the best avenue for Christians stuck in spiritual darkness looking to be dragged into the light.

Another article emerged focusing on Southwestern Seminary releasing a new document for their women’s courses in what it means to be a holy woman. In their twelve point document these values emerge: women must submit to their husband’s leadership, their ministry can only lead other women, and their chief responsibility is to invest in the next generation (make babies and raise them in a Christian home).

They believe the Bible is quite clear on this issue, but it’s not.

The biblical narrative is forged in a culture where women are disposable and often treated like property. Even with this backdrop, the Bible still contains stories of Godly women breaking through and engaging God in a relationship commonly thought to be designed for men, a relationship where women lead armies, travel with Jesus, represent God in parables and become deacons. At other times scriptures paint a sternly aggressive view on what women can and cannot do. I wonder if this dichotomy says more about how we attempt to interpret our relationship with God than it does about the character of God.

I’m less interested in a scripture slinging contest with Platt or Southwestern and am more interested in clearing the air. For decades books and articles have been published arguing both sides of the debate. Both sides use scripture definitively and effectively. Both sides have their key passages and biblical players. Both sides use logic and faith as best as they can. Both sides suggest the uncomfortable realization that the Bible allows for differing interpretations.

I’m not interested in hashing out arguments that have stalemated. I am, however, interested in offering my voice to the conversation that says wifely submission has something to do with advancing the kingdom of God. At best, this is a poorly articulated understanding of God’s dream for us. At worst, it’s a tool used in a battle for control and satisfaction that often leads to abuse.

To say the highest roles for women are to be submissive and birth babies is abusive. To spend a lifetime arguing what women should wear and when they should speak seems to be a terribly small agenda that feels like we’re moving backwards.

So my wife and I choose to set our sights higher. We choose to live more openly, more freely, and more unequivocally with one another. We choose to focus on serving the homeless communities, offering pastoral care to those in need, and preaching an inclusive gospel where God calls all people “Beloved.”

If there’s anyone left on the fence about gender roles, hopefully they’ll be able to see there’s no gospel in forcing women into submission.

We both change dirty diapers.

Barrett Owen

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About the Author
Barrett Owen is the associate director of admissions at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology and pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. He blogs weekly at Liminality: Exploring the holy, in-between spaces.

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  • Jonathan Waits

    Barrett, I really appreciate your thoughts and perspective on this. I look at the relationship my wife and I share in much the same way. We are partners. And yes, like you, I have changed my fair share of diapers.

    In spite of our lifestyle overlap, though, allow me to challenge a few of the assumptions you make. Most notably: what if you are right…and David Platt is also at least partially right? Let me explain. You are right in observing that all of the Scriptures were composed in cultures that had a terrible view of women. But, what you miss is the fact that the Biblical authors consistently advance the position of women very far beyond their respective cultures. The consistent view of Scripture is that men and women, while created differently by God and for different purposes, are absolutely equal in value before Him. Given the differences in the circumstances in our respective creation is it so terrible a thing to imagine that men and women were created uniquely for different roles in creation, each role absolutely necessary for its proper working?

    As for the concept of submission, I’m with you in being less than certain that upholding “wifely submission” is necessary for the advancement of the kingdom. And to be sure, some conservative voices on this issue seem to excel in demonstrating a profound cultural tone-deafness when talking about it. But still, if we are to take the words of Paul seriously, there is that thing about wives submitting to their husbands as unto the Lord and of husbands being the head of their wives even as Christ is the head of the church. Talking about submission from husband to wife can and certainly has been a terribly abused concept throughout the history of the church, but taking the concept out of the picture entirely seems unwise given that it’s right there in black and white.

    What to do? What if the image formed in the minds of most folks today when we hear the word “submission” is not at all what Paul envisioned? What if he really did have it in mind that wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord, but that this was an entirely positive thing leading to the flourishing and advancing toward Christ of both partners? Too often critics of complementarity stop short at v. 22 and leave out the fuller context of the passage including the devastatingly hard words Paul had for husbands. Indeed, if husbands live up to Paul’s standard of being like Christ, then, like Him wouldn’t they be worth submitting to? Furthermore, given the inherently self-sacrificing nature of Christ’s headship over the church, if husbands equally practiced Christ-like headship wouldn’t that mean that their whole existence, after God, is for the purpose of serving their wives and seeing them become more fully who God designed them be? If this were the understanding (and example!) of submission and headship we brought to this and other passages in Scripture that address the issues would people be so inclined to oppose them? It’s worth some thought at the very least.

    • Barrett Owen

      Thanks for reading and responding. This is a conversation worth having, for sure. I don’t dismiss Paul (or Timothy for that matter). Rather, I wrestle with it and hold it in tension with Galatians and Genesis and Jesus and all the other passages that help author this discussion.

      About four years ago I wrote a blog on “mutual submission” from Ephesians and take your position of challenging men to submit equally to their spouse. So you are in good company with me.

      I chose to avoid arguing one passage over another because how we approach scripture affects the way we interpret it. People’s own bias too often re-author the text to the point that the debate becomes a heated scripture slinging contest full of personal stories and convictions. But that’s not our fault either. Plus, there’s so much I didn’t say about “nature vs. nurture,” biblical incongruencies, early church, antiquity, etc.

      I even get the irony that I’m a man who stands in a cultural place of privilege writing about how I willingly give up that privlege to reauthor equality. What if my wife would have written these words? Would she have been received with the same respect? From a cultural standpoint, probably not. I guess my point in all of this is that we have deeply rooted, culturally-infused understandings of gender roles that need to be re-authored.