Brian and Sarah’s marriage started out great — they were in love; they wanted to please each other, and have a satisfying and healthy marriage. But it didn’t take long for their relationship to turn sour. It seemed as if they fought constantly about every aspect of their lives — from whose turn it was to cook to who should do the dishes or take care of the dogs. They both worked high-stress jobs and came home exhausted, which only added more tension to their marriage.
Brian reacted to the power struggles by eventually just giving in. Rather than confront them to work through their disagreements, he avoided them and became more passive to keep the peace. Only it didn’t keep the peace. He and Sarah struggled on a deeper level as their intimacy and connection began to fade as well. And they both felt more and more distant from each other.
During that dark time, they started attending a church in their neighborhood. There they began to learn about “different but equal” gender roles in marriage and how embracing those roles could make their relationship smoother. They longed to bring back the emotional intimacy they’d been missing.
They decided to give it a try to see if it could help their marriage. And today Brian and Sarah’s relationship is stronger, healthier and happier than ever. Brian and Sarah had embraced what we call a “complementarian” practice of marriage. They recognize that part of their struggle was because they had been “desperately trying to play roles that we weren’t meant to,” says Brian.
Every couple wants a satisfying and healthy marriage, but many of us wonder, What exactly does that look like in terms of our roles? And are there gender-defined roles?
What does complementarian mean?
Complementarian simply means that husbands and wives embrace roles that are intrinsically equal in worth and value but distinct and unique in design, role and function. One isn’t better than the other; they complete or complement each other.
Complementarians understand their God-given roles represent complementary expressions of the image of God in order to glorify God. They believe that according to Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image … male and female he created them.” That complementary expression is best played out by following the apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22-28 as he explained how those gender roles in marriage are defined and work together:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Spiritual leadership in the family
The husband holds the role of spiritual leader. He’s called to initiate spiritual investments and is overall responsible for the spiritual health of his family. But this does not mean that a wife isn’t actively involved in pursuing the family’s spiritual growth. It means that the husband carries the weight of the responsibility (for the family’s spiritual well-being — not for the wife’s spiritual health as an individual). As Paul mentioned, the husband is to love, care for and serve his wife as Christ loves the church. Christ loved the church so much that He gave up His life for her. Husbands are called to be servant leaders, which means they make the welfare of their wives and families a priority.
A wife’s role, on the other hand, is to respect and honor her husband. She’s meant to work alongside her husband to make their marriage succeed while allowing him to take the lead, especially when the two are in clear conflict.
Considering each other was challenging for Brian and Sarah. Brian admits that one of their major flaws was that they weren’t focused on serving each other. Instead of focusing on the other’s needs and best interests, they were focused on their own individual interests.
Think of gender roles in marriage as a team effort
Complementarians view their marriage as a team in which the husband is the “team captain” who wisely understands and uses his wife’s strengths to the best of their relationship. Neither person can be-all and do-all in a marriage nor are they supposed to.
That was the beautiful aspect of what Brian and Sarah discovered when they began intentionally practicing complementarianism. Brian, normally more comfortable being shy and passive, had to step up. He began taking a lead role in the couple’s finances, overall family vision and major decisions (that were solved with a “win-win” solution for both spouses). He found that with the responsibility also came a pride that he was able to care for his family and feel good about how they were doing.
Sarah also made some changes. She stepped back from feeling the need to make all the decisions, which has cut down on their arguments. When their first child arrived, she told Brian she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, so they worked together to figure out how to make that happen. And she admits that she loves having a husband who has a plan and the discipline to execute that vision.
They now act as a well-coordinated team, knowing their specific roles and giving each other room to grow within those. Because of that, they’ve rediscovered the respect and love they had for each other earlier in their marriage.
How it differs from an egalitarian marriage
Essentially, Christians with an egalitarian marriage viewpoint also see both husbands and wives being equal in worth, but they focus on equality without different gender roles in marriage. While they also look to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5, they focus on the verse directly preceding verses 22-28, in which Paul wrote, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (verse 21). So, while they also view marriage as teamwork, they see it more as co-captain leadership or collaborative leadership. The husband and wife mutually submit to each other, laying down their own self-interest for the other’s benefit.
What complementarianism isn’t
For some folks, the idea of traditional complementarianism gets confused with more extreme views, such as a wife’s role being a subservient, brainless doormat who submits to her husband in any and all circumstances, while her “superior” husband as a domineering tyrant who oppressively demands his way or the highway. These roles certainly do not line up with scriptural views on relationships.
To be clear, biblical submission never dominates, demeans, demands or abuses another person. It does not require spouses to deny their giftings or personality or shut off their intellect. Biblical submission expresses itself through sacrificial love and honor; servanthood and respect; encouragement and kindness; dying to self. At its core, biblical submission is about treasuring the other person who is created in the image of almighty God and joint “heirs with you of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).
That means ultimately that complementarians view masculinity and femininity as good and affirming. The individual manifestation of each role may vary somewhat from person to person based on interests, temperaments and giftings. In other words, complementarianism isn’t equated with the 1950s television stereotype of the “little woman” cooking and cleaning all day at home while her husband works. Then he comes home, plops on the couch and watches sports while she continues to cook and clean. That’s not scriptural; that’s cultural.
Working together in unity
Sarah finds it easier to submit to her husband’s leadership when she knows that he soberly carries the responsibility and that he does it through loving her. She says it’s a comfort to know that their gender roles in marriage are clearly defined. She can trust him to lead their family to the best of his ability — with God’s guidance and wisdom.
Brian and Sarah have discovered that the best expression of complementarianism glorifies God and brings vitality, joy and security into their marriage.
The truest form of this theology takes two persons and unites them as one, so they reflect the beautiful aspects of Christ’s relationship to His bride, the church — a relationship of forgiveness, grace and the deepest, purest love. What an amazing ministry and gift that makes our marriages.