I have said many times that those who believe as Complementarians, often practically live out their marriages as Egalitarians. There are many varieties of marriage in the Complementarian basket. Some follow a strict hierarchy, others practice a more democratic system. Many Comp marriages are a great example of unity and partnership. Even though many Comps believe the wife is to follow her husband’s leadership, most Comp husbands don’t require absolute obedience. In fact, they consistently yield to and seek to please their wives. They never (or rarely) pull “the trump card” of authority in their marriage to override their wife’s desire. A great explanation of this is found this article by Alan Johnson.
In essence, many Complementarian husbands believe they have the authority of rule, but they don’t demand it. As a result, it is hard for Comps to understand the temptation inherent in the Complementarian belief system to domestic abuse. Here is the circle of thought by a husband prone to controlling, dominating ways.
“The Bible says I am to be the head of my house. I am responsible for what happens in my home. My wife should submit to me. She doesn’t. I must make her, so I can be a good husband.”
The husband’s role performance is based on the wife’s role performance. Hence, “wives submit” becomes uber-important for Comp marriages to properly function. This is why Ephesians 5:22 is emphasized in Complementarian churches. It is the hinge that swings a godly marriage. If it squeaks or rusts shut, the marriage is not functioning as God intended. The husband can’t lead because the wife won’t follow.
This gender-based role of wife-submit and husband-lead, creates a thin, gray line. On one side of the line are Comp marriages that espouse gender-based submission and leadership, but in ways that look very Egalitarian. On the other side of the line lay the Complementarians that believe in a strict hierarchy: males and females must remain in their given roles or the church is headed for ruin. Because the line is thin, it is often hard to see the differences in Comp teaching, but the line is exposed by taking a look at the outcome of the teaching. Unified, peaceful marriages or abusive, subservient ones?
Because Comps believe a wife’s duty is to submit to her husband (regardless of the husband’s leadership abilities) , it is hard to find a firm line around what her submission should practically look like in a difficult marriage. Some Comp marriages are strict traditionalists bordering on abuse. Some Comp marriages find women negotiating their role of submission into something they are comfortable with, and the husbands distancing themselves away from having “the final say.” There is a wide discrepancy when it actually comes to how submission looks in a Comp marriage. Many times this teaching is simply empty theory. Many times it is an excuse to wield power over one spouse.
I have no profound conclusion. Understanding the differences in individual marriages may help those who label themselves Comp or Egal see an opposite view that may have been clouded. Not all Comps marriages follow the dogma, just the label.