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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

Brighter Together: Does Equal Mean Equal?

This is me getting ready to officiate a wedding.

I was treated differently from the moment that I was born. Ok, from the moment after the moment I was born. My dad, so sure it would be a 4th son declared, “Well, it’s another boy!”

“Look again,” the doctor would tell him.

My mom, who had dreamed of having a little girl for most of her life, tried so hard to dress me in lace and pretty things. Pink is her favorite color after all. Instead, I insisted on wearing my brother’s old T-shirts.

I definitely had the best of both worlds. No one told me to suck it up when I had big feelings. Instead of telling me to be tough, my brothers scooped me up and made sure I was safe and well cared for.

My mom and I share a very special bond. She taught me how to cook and sew. When my baby brother, David, was born, I was there with my dad and grandma at the hospital, feeding her ice chips.

Dad and I had a special connection too. When I was in middle school he let me “help” re-roof the house. How many 12 year old girls do you know that have climbed up on a roof to cut shingles and swing a hammer? Talk about empowering! And dirty. I didn’t really like that part. Ruined my knockoff Keds.

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I felt uniquely positioned between the two. Not enculturated into the world of men, but close enough to sort of speak the language. Really, our two worlds aren’t that far apart.

Have you ever thought to yourself, where did I come from? Was I born this way or am I product of my upbringing? I used to say it doesn’t matter. I am who I am and you are who you are. We all have things we are good at and things we need to work on.

This question of nature vs nurture comes up regularly around gender roles, gender identity and sexuality. Twenty years ago pop culture often characterized same sex relationships as a lifestyle choice. Christians who believed that gay sex was a sin asserted that individuals with same sex attraction could choose to be straight or commit to a life of celibacy. The LGBTQ+ community countered that they can’t choose whether they love men, women or both and that they were born this way.

On the other hand, evangelicals, specifically branches like the Southern Baptist Convention that have dominated popular Christian culture, would assert that men and women are born for pre-defined roles. From that perspective there is a God-given order of things. Men must be manly and take charge, bring home the bacon and chop fire wood whether they have a wood stove or not. Women are meant to be soft, supportive, beautiful and sexually available. In other words, we are all born this way.

Certain sects of the Christian church still push these ideas of patriarchy. It’s presented in doctrines like complementarianism. The term was coined in the 1980s by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in response to the doctrine of egalitarianism.

Egalitarianism is this idea that men and women are equal and all roles are open to everyone. This perspective leans on Galatians 3.28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Complementarianism starts from Genesis 1.27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” From this perspective, both men and women are created equally in God’s image. Both male and female are expressions of God’s character—equal but different.[1] Men and women’s differences are complimentary and both have distinct roles to play in their relationships with each other and in the church.[2]

On paper this idea doesn’t sound too bad at all. Except that we are operating with two different ideas of the word “equal.” From a complementarian viewpoint, women are equal in responsibility and nominal status but denied positional leadership and authority. Meaning women can do all the work, be acknowledged for their talents, but not given a seat at the decision making table. The degree to which this is emphasized varies by congregation.

A little over a year into married life, I resigned my pastorate. As newlyweds, Adam and I attended a church in our area for several months. I got an idea of their viewpoint when the board of elders stood in front of the church. All ten or so of them were men. You can’t get that kind of uniformity by accident. There were certainly women leaders in the church, but none of them carried the title of “pastor” on the church web site. They were directors of children’s and women’s ministries.

This was a Baptist church. Adam and I met at an Assemblies of God church, but he grew up fundamentalist Baptist. My step-daughter liked the youth group. We had a couple of good friends who went there and we generally enjoyed the worship services. I was trying to keep an open mind. How important was it that they didn’t ordain women pastors? I was already an ordained elder and I wasn’t looking for them to hire me or anything.

We decided to attend membership class. The lead pastor was expecting my question. I’m not shy about these things so he had a heads up that I would want to know more. I had heard that he was progressive for his group, so I was curious. He introduced me to a term I had never heard before—complementarianism.

Although all of the elders were men, the pastor considered the man and his wife a team. Sometimes their wives were invited to meetings to give input. He had a couple of women on staff that he considered pastors. Not officially, but they were doing the work of pastoral care. It was true. For Baptists, this church was very progressive. The heart of complementarianism, the pastor explained, is that women are meant to come alongside their husbands as supportive partners.

I wish I would have asked, “But what if you don’t have a husband?” It didn’t occur to me in the moment. Apparently 16 months of wedded bliss made me forget 36 years of singlehood.

Ultimately it was my husband, Adam, who decided that this wasn’t the church for us. No lady pastors wasn’t the only reason, but it was a biggie. I thought about all I had been through in ministry up to that point. I had given up so much to follow a call into church leadership. I didn’t want to go even a half step backwards.

I tend to have a “live and let live” sort of stance on most things. You want to go to a church that doesn’t have women in leadership, ok cool. I just won’t be attending or supporting your ministry. Except recently in my conversations about deconstruction and purity culture I keep hearing stories from women who have been abused and I can’t be cool about it anymore.

Now you may be thinking, that’s a real leap, Sharon. Just because a church doesn’t ordain women elders doesn’t mean they are abusive. Agreed. I’m taking you on a journey with me, so just hang in there.

The real rub comes with the over-emphasis on a man’s role as head of household. Actually, now I’m thinking it’s also a lack of personhood for women without husbands.

Anyway, in many places this traditional man-leads-woman-follows model works. I’m not surprised that many church-goers still embrace the idea. Some couples fit the model just fine. But if you don’t fit, what then? You’re left trying to change yourself to fit into the box that God made you for? Hmm… that just doesn’t seem right.

This model also leaves out same sex couples. Perhaps that is part of the appeal. The idea that men and women have different pre-defined relationship roles would support the point that two men or two women wouldn’t be able to function as a couple. (And yet they do.)

All this is based on a passage in Scripture written by the Apostle Paul. Here it is from Ephesians 5.21-33:

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

David Guzik of Calvary Chapel has a popular online commentary. He says this word “submit” means to be under rank, like in the military. “The idea of submission doesn’t have anything to do with someone being smarter or better or more talented. It has to do with a God-appointed order.” In a marriage relationship, he explains, you’re part of a team and the wife recognizes her husband’s authority. He points out that submission doesn’t mean inferiority, rather, “The wife says, ‘I’m going to put myself under that mission. That mission is more important than my individual desires. I’m not putting myself below my husband, I’m putting myself below the mission God has for our marriage, for my life.’”[3]

I’m guessing at this point you might be starting to see the opportunity for abuse. When you teach women that obedience to their husband is part of God’s mission for her life, you equate his authority with God’s authority.

As a Christian, I want to take the Bible seriously. But what do I do with a passage like this?

I have too much to say, and work travel is pushing up my weekly deadline! I’m curious to know your thoughts. You can leave a comment on my Facebook post or feel free to send me a message.

I want to leave you with this. There are a lot of people out there giving relationship advice. At the end of the day you just have to figure it out. You can consult all kinds of relationship experts. I have certainly received a lot of help from therapy, both individually and as a couple. But the only true expert on your relationship is you and your partner. If the advice that your pastor, parents or even the Apostle Paul himself gives is not helpful, you have to let it go.

I often ask God for wisdom to help me know how to love my husband better. We are still learning how to be married. I don’t want us to just stay together forever. I want us to enjoy being partners together forever. That’s a goal that’s worth pursuing. I hope you feel the same for you and your partner.

Next week (or two) I’ll talk more about the history that got us here, how our sex lives have suffered, offer some observations about scripture and reiterate how women’s empowerment is good for everyone.

[1] Here’s a short video that talks about the origin of the term. [2] Here’s an article that does a good job of explaining both viewpoints: [3]

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