Should an Egalitarian Date a Complementarian? (by Bridget Jack Jeffries)

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Hierarchist (aka complementarian) pastor and theologian John Piper tackled this issue earlier this year, and for once, I largely agree with him. It is a bad idea for an egalitarian, and a hierarchist who are firmly wedded to their ideals, to date.

This is just good advice for religious dating in general – don’t date someone who disagrees with you on things that mean a lot to you (and that’s going to be a different list for every person) – but it especially applies to views on gender roles.

How is there not supposed to be resentment in a relationship when he thinks she should submit to his leadership and she thinks Ephesians five wives should only exist in dark corners of the modern world along with Ephesian six slaves? (I am, for the time being, assuming a male hierarchist and a female egalitarian; I’ll get to the opposite at the end of this post.)

Somebody then wrote in to ask, what should you do if you’re a complementarian who is already married to an egalitarian?

On this account, Piper’s response is far less useful. He advises for a prickly situation wherein the husband continues to exercise leadership in the home by calling Bible studies and prayer meetings with the children, leaving the wife in the uncomfortable position of having to either submit to his leadership or stew by herself somewhere else.

This bizarre scenario doesn’t answer a host of important questions in navigating a complementarian-egalitarian relationship, such as:

What church will the family attend?

Will it have female deacons, elders, or pastors?

How will decisions be made? How will disagreements be settled?

Is the complementarian husband going to support his egalitarian wife if she is called to serve as a deacon or elder at her local church, or if she chooses to become a pastor or chaplain?

What happens if the egalitarian wife beats her husband to initiating and leading family Bible studies?

Does he engage with her in co-leading the family meetings, or is he the one stewing with resentment elsewhere?

Egalitarians and complementarians who marry each other only have three options:

(1) compromise on their principles
(2) live and let live
(3) part ways

Either one or both of you agrees to sacrifice some of your egalitarian/complementarian principles for the sake of the marriage, or you live separately and apart in what is effectively an interfaith marriage, or it doesn’t work out.

For me, the question of whether I would date a complementarian comes down to what kind of complementarian he is.

Marriage at the Crossroads was a 2009 book by William & Aida Spencer (an egalitarian couple) and Steve & Celestia Tracy (a soft complementarian couple). There was not a lot of practical difference between how the couples ran their marriages.

As one reviewer said, “In many respects the differences between the Spencers and the Tracys appear to be more semantical than actual, as there are several shared sentiments. ‘If we didn’t know better, we would say we had read each other’s chapters because they have each similar and overlapping content’ (p. 182).”

So I could see a marriage between an egalitarian and a Craig Blomberg [1] complementarian working out with little issue – so long as the couple could come to agreement on a church home – while a marriage between an egalitarian and a Paige Patterson complementarian would be doomed.

Last year I wound up dating someone who eventually proved to be the equivalent of a hard complementarian.

I reached a point where I asked him, if things ever worked out, would we be able to compromise on a church to attend together given our different feelings on gender and ministry? I suggested the example of an Anglican church I knew of that had female deacons and female “pastors,” but not female elders or priests.

His response? “I am NOT going to compromise on God’s standards!” I realized there was no way I was going to be with someone who wouldn’t attend church with me or be fully supportive of me if I ever became an elder, a deacon, or a chaplain, and this became one of several reasons that I ended the relationship.

My advice to egalitarians who are debating whether to date a complementarian is to know and be up-front about their deal-breakers. I wound up changing my profile on the dating site to be very specific about my feelings on gender and how I wouldn’t date Christians who were strong believers in traditional gender roles.

I have only been addressing the scenario of a female egalitarian dating a male complementarian. What about the opposite, a male egalitarian dating a female complementarian?

I think this is potentially less of an issue because they have a loophole: so long as they mutually agree that the husband is going to lead, and the husband is willing to take the lead, neither one is compromising his/her principles.

There may still be some disagreement about where the couple goes to church and whether the church will have female deacons, elders and pastors, but if the female partner is a good complementarian, shouldn’t she be submitting to her husband’s desire to attend an egalitarian church? Problem solved.

aaa-419x416Bridget Jack Jeffries holds a master’s degree in American church history from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Her interviews on religion have appeared in The Washington Post and Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. She blogs on spirituality and single motherhood at Weighted Glory.

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16 Comments

    • I changed my profile to say something like, “If you believe a man should be the head of his household, or a woman should take her husband’s last name, or that women cannot be pastors, and you aren’t interested in having a conversation about what the Bible really says on the subject, we would not be a good match.” That’s not fool-proof because I’m sure some complementarian guys would think, “I’ll be happy to show you what the Bible REALLY says on the subject,” but the number of complementarian guys contacting me after that noticeably decreased.

  • “Hierarchist” is a better word for it than “complementarian”, because it makes it clear why a relationship with an egalitarian woman could never work. It’s more honest, too. Complementarian tries to make it sound like men and women are peers, which in that view they are not; Hierarchist makes it clear that there’s a boss and a subordinate.

  • A great post as always, Jack.
    I want to give a bit of further comment on the last situation, though – a male egalitarian dating a female complementarian/hierarchalist. You’re right that several of the big trouble spots (e.g., what kind of church to attend) are resolved more easily. I’d add that there’s perhaps less danger than in the scenarios you found from personal experience.
    That said, it’s no walk in the park for a committed male egalitarian in the dating world, either. Where I am (in heavily Mennonite territory), most theologically orthodox women are complementarians of one stripe or another. I’ve found myself in several scenarios in which a hierarchalist woman cast her role as exclusively passive (adamantly refusing to make any contributions to decision-making, other than to say no to all suggestions, then ignore further suggestions, and finally go on an angry tirade that I was an insufficiently godly man because I wouldn’t “lead” properly).
    Of course not all complementarian women are like that, just as not all complementarian men are domineering and uncompromising. But the loophole here may be smaller than sometimes thought.

    • This is exactly what I thought. There are plenty of hierarchalist women who are aggressive and domineering in their own way, about demanding that a man behave to certain standards. In my opinion this is because the gender hierarchy system by its nature bullies people, and it produces bullies.

  • I recently added to my dating profile: “Also, if you’re looking for someone to take care of/provide for/rescue, I’m probably not your woman. :)” We’ll see if that staves off the gender existentialist dudes. haha

  • In that exact situation. An egalitarian woman married to a hard complementarian husband. When we got married, I was still deep in the way I’d been brought up (hard complementarian, very much the male headship model). I knew that I believed in my equality and told my fiancee that I was not Mrs. Domestic and never would be; and I brought up things like our careers getting equal opportunity, etc. He stumbled a bit at the time because of course he believed differently, but in our inexperience we thought these weren’t major things and love would make it all work.

    It doesn’t. Please, please, if you’re an egalitarian woman, don’t date or marry a complementarian, even a soft one. You are not equal. You never will be. He believes that’s how God intended it. Short of a Damascus Road experience for your date/husband, which has never happened in my marriage, it will never change.

    The heartbreak is intense. Our marriage is a wreck and we’re on the razor’s edge of separating. We do have children and that alone has kept us together for many years. I keep asking for respect, to be treated and viewed as an equal. He is confused by this as he considers that he already does that, even as he treats me as another one of the children to be directed. I tell him I wanted a partner, not a boss, and he says we *are* partners–he goes to work and I stay home.

    (I made the agonizing choice to stay home when I found I was pregnant with Kid #1 and realized that my workaholic husband was only going deeper into workaholism with kids on the way. It wasn’t fair for me to be put in that position, but that was reality. I decided the kids were more important than the gross injustice of him refusing to work together with me to figure this out so we could both parent and continue to do the other things we’re gifted and called to do.)

    He felt that him working and me staying home was a partnership. It didn’t bother him that the career I’d worked on for a decade was flushed down the toilet; this was what God wanted.

    Do not, do not date a complementarian of any stripe. Fundamentally, you are not an equal in his eyes, but he will always insist you are, even as he treats you very unequally. These problems will only get bigger and more severe the longer you’re with him. I’ve shed more tears than you could imagine over this. Prayed more fervent prayers. Tried various things to make our marriage survive and work. Nothing changes the fundamental problem of his unbiblical beliefs about women and marriage. I hope single women see this in time and avoid my fate. By this point, there is no good alternative left. Every way I look there’s disaster. But you can still avoid this.

    Red-letter day. I agree with Piper on this.

    • terri, my heart breaks for you. Thank you for sharing your personal experience.

      My XH was a Mormon who definitely had complementarian-like views. The ex-boyfriend wouldn’t have self-identified as complementarian (he had a rather idiosyncratic view wherein he insisted absolutely no labels be applied to himself because that would be like “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos”), but it definitely became clear to me that his attitude on women’s ordination was just part of his greater disrespect for women.

      I think every egalitarian gal has to grapple with this question for herself. I hope they take your story to heart. ((hugs))

    • Hi Terri,
      Praying for you. I think this is where some people find themselves in a controlling and abusive relationship. The bible is quite clear about how a husband should love his wife, which is not controlling her.

      I’m now asking women some of the following: Have you changed yourself significantly to stay in a relationship? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
      If you’re not someone you recognize and you’d do things very differently if you weren’t with that person, you are likely in an unhealthy relationship.

      A cry for justice is a helpful Christian resource for women who are wondering if they are in an abusive / controlling relationship and need help and encouragent.

  • It is very interesting that in BOTH scenarios, it all boils down to the choice of the man. This is sick is it not? In both scenarios the man gets to choose where they go to church, etc. Is there not an alternative where Christians can actually treat each other as equals? In both cases described here the woman is expected to give up her uniqueness and who she is. She must sublimate her being to another and she becomes a non-entity. Is that even what men want of the sparkling girl they married? Do they truly want a blank page on which they write the whole story? That is what they seem to expect and frankly I think that is why marriages DON’T work. She seeks solace elsewhere and so does he…because she no longer “is” the girl he married.

    Men need to take a long look at this pattern and wonder why they want a wife at all…a “yes-man” to do his bidding and serve him…a nobody who has no identity but his. This is very vain and prideful and thus very sinful, yet it seems to be the criteria by which men in churches measure women.

    Because this will not change in my lifetime I have abandoned church as an ineffectual place for real women who have character, personality, intellect and ideas, gifts and plans, and an opinion of their own. It is a place for blank slates who have sacrificed their being for a place to vegetate and live as empty souls…dependent…entirely dependent. This is also the fate of those who choose the left politically, giving up their independence for so-called security that results in a society of non-entities dependent on ‘mommy’.

    Humanity requires the full development of all that God has made us…for we are all in His image…yes even women…Genesis describes us thus. So how is it possible that one image of God must sacrifice that image to another…God says “For my glory I will NOT GIVE TO ANOTHER…nor my praise to graven images”. Well that goes for all women too…we will no longer give our glory to men to take and blow out the flame. So go ahead and close the churches…they are committing suicide by this Complementarian doctrine anyway.

    • And NO…under no circumstance must a Christian girl marry a Complementarian…run…run as fast as you can away from such a beast…He has no understanding of Christ’s message for the world…Christ who came to set the captives free…flee to Him and wait on him for a suitable partner.

    • It is very interesting that in BOTH scenarios, it all boils down to the choice of the man. This is sick is it not? In both scenarios the man gets to choose where they go to church, etc.

      Hi Judy, I’m a little confused. I’m certainly not advocating that an egalitarian woman dating a complementarian man has to let him choose the church. Why do you think that I said that?

      For my own part, since breaking up with the boyfriend that I mentioned in this article, I’ve been extremely clear to the men that I’ve dated that I won’t attend a church that doesn’t ordain women.

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