How Becoming Egalitarian Changed One Couple’s Marriage

by | Oct 13, 2023 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 16 comments

Egalitarianism changed couple's Christian marriage

What happens to marriage when a couple becomes egalitarian?

On our October 5th Bare Marriage podcast episode (episode 208), I had a fascinating conversation with pastor Terran Williams and learned about how he changed his mind on complementarianism.

He was working at a large church in Cape Town, South Africa when he was assigned the task of writing up their position paper defending complementarianism. So he began to research–and his life changed. This podcast is less about why he changed his mind, and more about the effects on his life and ministry, and I found it absolutely refreshing and hopeful and beautiful.

He came to the realization that the choice of allowing only men to be church leaders means you’re chopping off the voices of women at a decision-making level. A church leadership team can make as many as 50 to 100 decisions a year, and when you add that to the level of influence held by the person preaching at the pulpit each Sunday morning, complementarianism has cut women’s voices out of these two key moments to help direct a congregation of believers.

Eventually, God led him to become the pastor of a new church – one where women’s voices and influence were openly embraced at every level. It was a refreshing change, and one he happily accepted. For the first time in his adult life, Terran was serving alongside women and learning to appreciate the diversity and wisdom that comes with bringing women to the table.

How Did His Wife Feel? And How Did It Impact His Marriage?

Interestingly, Terran embraced egalitarianism, or mutuality, before Julie did. She held on to her own complementarian beliefs right up until he began to write his book and asked her to edit it for him.

Reading her husband’s book was the encouragement she needed to start her own journey into the world of egalitarianism. She checked all of his claims against Scripture and, in the end, had her own ”ah-ha! Moment” that mutuality was God’s design for marriage after all.

She was so fully on board with this new way of seeing the church and marriage, that she wrote the forward for her husband’s book, How God Sees Women.

Now, here’s where things get interesting, and what I really want to highlight today.

One thing we’ve come to see through our studies and research is that many married couples who profess to be complementarian are actually egalitarian in function. It’s the way it has to be if a marriage is going to be healthy. Terran and Julie were no different; although they believed in the complementarian system, their functionally mutual relationship allowed each of them to develop their own beliefs in their own time, and it seems that this freedom to disagree and challenge one another is the very thing that led both of them to embrace a theology of mutuality.

But in listening to Terran’s story, it became clear that there was another element going on. Being “complementarian in name but egalitairan in practice” is still different from being fully egalitarian–as Terran and Julie found when their beliefs changed.

As Terran shifted in his theology, he let the “trump card” over his wife fall and stopped seeing Julie as merely his helper or assistant whose role is to support him, raise the kids, and keep the house running. She was a woman with her own unique voice, gifts, and strengths that God wanted her to use.

Terran experienced an extremely emotional moment when it all clicked for him that he and his wife were equals, and not meant to exist in a hierarchical relationship. In our interview, he described it as seeing Julie for the very first time, with tears in his eyes, as his ezer kenegdo – a partner who is strong when he is weak.

Julie also found herself shifting away from thinking of herself as Terran’s submissive wife and “muscled up” to walk at his side as his equal. She even became the main breadwinner of their family after Terran left his pastoral role at their original church – a situation that many complementarian couples struggle with.

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Julie’s switch in beliefs meant a shift in expectations

Even though they were “egalitarian in practice” earlier, there was still further to go. Certainly Terran didn’t make decisions alone, but what he described in the podcast reminded me of so many interviews we’ve done. When women feel as if their husbands are supposed to be the leaders, they often don’t value their own views or opinions as much, and so just don’t express them–or even explore them.

When Julie realized that her opinions held as much weight, she started expressing them more. It wasn’t that they weren’t practising egalitarians before; it’s just that she had still been holding back.

That’s what I found so fascinating about this conversation–when you embrace mutuality for real, suddenly women start valuing their voices more (and I wrote more on the phenomenon of not valuing your own voice in my post on “What’s wrong with wanting to submit to your husband?”)

It wasn’t just expectations around decisions, either.

Julie also communicated her need to see Terran show up in a whole new way in their family. While Terran was a present father prior to embracing mutuality, there were still assumed gender roles in their marriage. Terran, as father, was expected to merely be the provider and spiritual leader, while Julie assumed much of the childcare and the role of supportive wife. Terran has since been growing in his understanding that a theology of mutuality means that husbands and wives are equal team members in running the home and raising children.

I found this conversation fascinating and healing, but I wanted to comment on this part of it today: What would it mean for the church to not just be egalitarian in practice, but also egalitarian in belief? How might that mean that women “show up” in their marriages more, and that men “show up” as active partners?

I could see the joy in Terran’s face as he told the story of his marriage. I just want that joy for everyone–fully seen, fully valued, fully partners.

 

Embracing egalitarianism changed Christian marriage

What do you think? Is there a difference between “complementarian in name only” couples and fully egalitarian couples? How would we measure this? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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16 Comments

  1. Phil

    I really like the question today. It is super insightful. I really want to answer it so I have put some deep thought into it. Thinking about my own marriage and honestly not ever knowing what egalitarian or complimentarian were back in the day…it was just my wanting to control. Immaturity. I claimed our marriage was 60/40 me being the 60 and joked -well we are close. I knew it should be mutual 50/50 but couldnt live it. It was orobakby 70/30 or more at times. Host of my issues…It wasnt spiritual at all. But giving thought to the question how does one measure? Well I would have to say the measurement is personal for each but the answer lies in the amount of issues in ones marriage. Here is my hypothesis. I would suspect that those who are complimentarian believers who act egalitarian still have a tipped scale in some areas that causes issues. More issues than the egalitarian marriage. How you draw that out for measurement I am mot sure but it seems to me that is where the answer is. Or if you want you could set up a month for Keith to interview people and find out if their husband is happier than him 🤣. Sorry couldn’t resists that one today – from last weeks troll. That one still makes me laugh.

    Reply
  2. Nessie

    I would venture a guess that couples (claiming comp but acting egal) somewhere deep inside feel that they are being a little bit dishonest, and are both able to more fully embrace the freedom of not having that nagging thought in the back of their minds that they aren’t *quite* being fully honest once they actually claim egalitarianism.
    Just my theory.

    Reply
  3. Terry

    It’s heartbreaking to be comp: “I can’t be caught treating my wife like an equal because it’s not biblical.”

    Hopefully you’d eventually start questioning that.

    Reply
    • Lynda Sullivan

      I struggle with this . I love being a stay at home mom. I homeschool. We share in everything. But I would not want a woman to be our Pastor. There are women in our church who serve alongside their husbands, but they wouldn’t want to lead church.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        So, Lynda, you’re saying that if God had equipped and called a woman to lead, you simply wouldn’t want them to?

        Reply
  4. Laura

    I have witnessed women who claim to be submissive wives do not act that way. In fact, some of the ones I know virtue signal at women’s Bible studies, but when I’ve seen them around their husbands, they have a take charge (in some cases, they are dominating) attitude. Their husbands are like, “yes, dear.” So I cannot take what people say seriously when they do not act out what they claim. We’ve got to be honest because we need to be good witnesses for Christ. I think a lot of Christians claim the comp view to appear that they take the Bible seriously.

    When I say that men and women are equal, I get told that I’m not being obedient to God and have a rebellious spirit. Of course, I hate hearing that and in the past, it made me think that God was disappointed in me. Now I know He’s not.

    Reply
  5. Ellie

    I was raised hard comp. Though I accepted and mostly embraced it, I think there was always a subconscious disagreement with hierarchy/patriarchy inside of me. I married a man with complex health issues which *forced* me into a more egalitarian role as his needs required my stepping up and getting stronger. I have had to learn balance since, in some respects, he’s been willing to rely on me when he could handle certain things. Your post caused me to look back on my progression from a rather passive follower to someone who has developed strong mutual and reciprocal expectations. I appreciate y’all so much!!

    Reply
  6. Lisa Johns

    My marriage would have been described as “egalitarian in name, complementarian in practice,” kind of the opposite of what you describe and are so (rightly) concerned about! What that looked like was, while my husband would never have verbalized that he wanted to dominate me and to see me submit to him, my voice, my needs, my wants, my dreams were silenced and buried; and whenever I spoke up in attempts to express my needs or my views, I was treated as if I was being demanding and unreasonable. (My husband was master of the “wounded, shocked and appalled” look, as if what I said were the most insane thing he had ever heard. Over and over and over again…) I can not describe the damage this has done to me over the years, nor the destruction it has wreaked in our family.
    The church over the years has mostly supported him, not out of malice, but out of ignorance. Not only does the church need to straighten out its views on complementarianism vs. egalitarianism, it really needs to be educated on the origins, practice, and outcomes of covert abuse. And it REALLY needs to emphasize and strengthen women’s voices!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Completely agree! Abuse is abuse, and so many don’t recognize coercive control.

      Reply
  7. Nathan D. Wachsmuth

    I was raised to see men as the leaders and women as the followers (though my own father wasn’t exactly the best example of being a “Christian” leader — my mom was the breadwinner, the childraiser, the nurturer, etc., etc.; while he was more or less her biggest bully), and all through college I was part of a Reformed University Fellowship group that preached that “[Paul] does not allow a woman to teach”, and that women are submitting to the men. It never sat right with me, and I never really understood why men are just “naturally leaders” and women are “naturally weaker”. Of course, now I’ve taken a little journey and it makes a lot more sense that God made us equal in right and standing, with very minor biological differences (a father can never bear children for instance, though he can and SHOULD raise them alongside the mother). I’m so much more at ease and my fiance and I have had so many good discussions based off this blog and especially these kinds of posts. Thank you, Sheila!

    Reply
    • Nathan D. Wachsmuth

      (Also that school was where I heard about Beth Allison Barr’s book first came into my purview, and you bet your butt that all of the RUF guys were mocking the subject material while I just got more confused. I thought she’d made good points.)

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So glad you got out of those beliefs before you got married!

      Reply
      • Nathan D. Wachsmuth

        Believe me, so am I.

        Reply
  8. sunnynorth

    This encapsulates why despite knowing that most complementarian couples do not act it out, I will not be signing up to marry any guy who believes it at all – the risk of not truly being equal partners let alone all the disastrous ways it could play out is just too great.

    Actually, Sheila, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. You’ve talked about how your marriage was tough in the beginning due to the obligation sex message and vaginismus, and Keith has said he was selfish then due to the same messages around sex. But obviously your partnership is incredible now! Is there any way for people to marry knowing the other person has some messy beliefs that are unhealthy but work it out the way you and Keith did? Were there specific green flags about each other and your relationship that you can see looking back that helped you both work through the bad stuff even when you didn’t know any better? Do you think it’s partially due to age? As a single woman in my early thirties I know a whole lot more than I did as a young twenties woman and am a lot less willing to put up with even a whiff of beliefs like that. Apologies if this is too personal for you to answer!

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    Wow
    Just wow.
    I could cry.
    My husband called me a feminist this morning for correcting him when he said “I rule this family”, I responded ” God rules this family and we make our decisions together”, he called me a feminist. A FEMINIST!

    He is full-blown complementarian, and I have just crawled out of it. Having the kind of marriage described here just seems so out of reach for us. I am glad to know the miracle is possible. Please don’t ever stop sharing stories like these.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m sorry for how your husband is treating you. Please be sure that you’re safe. When someone is insisting on ruling you, that often means that the relationship may verge into abuse.

      Reply

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