As a young teenager, I had an immense respect for my cult leader’s wife. I was best friends with her daughter, which meant that I was one of the few people who were frequently invited into their home. I spent many weekends having sleepovers at their house, watching John Wayne movies until the wee hours of the morning, playing army in the backyard for hours on Saturday. The first time I ever had grits was in her home, the first time I made cookies she taught me, the first time I went garage sale-ing I was with her. I admired her– her frugality, her work ethic, her constancy in her faithfulness to her husband in all things, the sacrifices she made for her family, her earnestness in raising her children… she was a large part of what I pictured in my head when I envisioned the ideal wife. My parents marriage was, and is, healthy, but my cult leader’s wife fit more easily into the mold I was being taught was the biblical role for a wife. Even to this day, when I’m reminded of the Proverbs 31 woman, I think of her.
One Sunday morning, after the cult leader had disbanded any kind of “youth group” and told the teenagers that our regular Sunday school was canceled and we were expected to attend Sunday school with the adults, the cult leader preached a message on marriage. I don’t exactly remember the context of the entire sermon, but I do remember feeling relieved that his wife hadn’t been there to hear it– she had been keeping nursery that morning. My mother leaned over to my father and whispered “thank God Miss Dianne* wasn’t here to listen to that.” But, in church, he said the exact same thing:
“Husbands, you know how it is, you know what it’s like. Sometimes, you just really don’t want to be married anymore. Nothing about marriage seems worth it, and it would be better if you were just alone. Can I get an Amen?”
While a few men in the congregation muttered an unenthusiastic amen, I looked over at Miss Dianne, and I will never forget the look on her face. She was crushed, devastated– destroyed by the husband she submitted to.
Growing up, I didn’t know the word complementarianism, officially, but what I did know was that a wife was intended to “complement” her husband. A husband and wife, united, made up for lacks in each other. They filled out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Even today, I can appreciate the core of this idea, even though it is frequently over simplified and reduced down to ideas like “opposites attract.” There’s a certain beauty in two people meeting together and becoming stronger because of each other. That’s what I find most stunning in the imagery of becoming one flesh.
However, in conservative religious environments, there are limitations and boundaries to what complementing your husband can look like. I grew up with this idea that women were to be “keepers at home,” that there was a universal standard of femininity I was expected to live up to, that my role and responsibility was in being a wife and mother. I was taught that envisioning a role for myself that included roles in addition to a maternal one was sinful and selfish. If I attempted to be a wife, a mother, and a career woman, I would most definitely become depressed, maybe suicidal, my marriage would be ruined, and I would fail as a mother.
On top of that, I was also taught that there is one biblical structure for marriage: a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the Church. I am called to obey and submit to my husband in all things, regardless of how my husband might behave toward me. If he was treating me badly, I was taught that it was probably because I was not practicing biblical submission. All I had to do, in order to ensure a beatific marriage, was be a submissive wife, and the rest would fall into place.
I can’t really deconstruct everything that is wrong with those particular set of teachings, but I want to talk about where these teachings come from, and why complementarianism is exalted as the “only form of biblical marriage,” and why the egalitarian position is frequently dismissed because, supposedly, we don’t read our Bibles.
The first place that many complementarians will go to in order to argue that complementarianism is biblical is Genesis 2 and 3. They begin with God’s decision to create Eve:
“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
The key word there is helper. There’s a lot to be said about this word (‘ezer, or עֵזֶר). At its most basic, “helper” really is probably the best translation for the word, although “help meet” is used as well. Many complementarians argue that this means that women were created to help men. That was the reason for Eve’s existence, and continues to be the definite, primary purpose of women today. This passage seems to “very clearly and plainly say” that this is why God created women. We are helpers, not leaders.
But let’s take a quick look at where else this word is used. First of all, Genesis 2 is one of only three places that ‘ezer is used to describe a person or a people; the other fifteen times ‘ezer appears, it’s to describe God. It’s used twice in Deuteronomy, where God is described as someone who “rides through the heavens to your help” and as a “shield of help.” It’s used again in the Psalms, where the God of Jacob is called upon for protection, for him to send “help from the sanctuary.” In other places in the psalms, God is a “help and a deliverer,” or as the one responsible for all of creation.
If God is helping Israel, if we’re going to be consistent in our hermenuetic, it means that he is in a subservient position to Israel. He is not leading, or directing. He is not the one making the decisions. He’s helping, that’s all. Israel is the leader, God is the helper.
I think it’s also interesting that when this passage eventually comments on what their relationship is going to be, it’s in the directive for men and women to become one flesh. To me, that doesn’t say hierarchy, or that one is to be dominant over the other. That doesn’t make any sense, really. My body is one flesh. How does any part of my body have dominance over another? In fact, when, a “part” of me does have dominance over another “part” of me, it’s usually to my detriment. When my head rules my heart, or when my heart rules my head, there’s imbalance, and it’s dangerous. I’m not operating in a way that is true to all of me, to every part of me.
Complementarians also use Eve’s deception to show her up as weaker, as more fallible, than Adam. Some have even claimed that the serpent went to Eve because he knew that he wouldn’t have been able to deceive Adam. Except, Adam was with her. He was there, listening to the same deception. Some have argued that Adam only ate the fruit because he knew that God would send Eve out of the garden, but he loved her too much to let her go alone.
I don’t have to space to tackle all of that right now, especially since the biggest argument that complementarians pull from this passage is after the Fall, when God is cursing Adam and Eve. When God curses Eve, he tells her that her pain in childbirth will be multiplied, that her desire shall be for her husband, and that he will rule over her.
Those five words provide much of the foundation for complementarian ideals; they argue, over and over again, that it is God’s design for men to rule over their wives. That’s the way it should be, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If women violate this God-ordained order by not allowing our husbands to have the rule over us, we are inviting our own destruction. We will be unhappy. We’ll be miserable. Because, deep down, we know that submitting to our husband’s headship is the way it’s supposed to be.
Except… morphine exists, as do C-sections, and epidurals.
Why is it that women are “fighting against the natural order” when we want equality with our husbands (note: complementarians frequently argue that a husband and wife are equal-- we have equal, but separate roles. This is a problem, because complementarians are not defining “equality” the same way, because women in the complementarian role are to submit to their husband’s headship. If there’s a hierarchy, they’re not equals), but there isn’t a problem with reducing our pain in childbirth? Or, while we’re on this subject, why is it that no one talks about “violating God’s ordained order” when we try to get rid of weeds, or when we develop reapers and irrigation to help combat our difficulties?
I’d like to highlight something that is present in this passage: when God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, it’s to send them to work the ground. He’d just finished cursing the ground, but he still sent them to till and harvest it, to survive– and to eventually thrive.
Yes, the Genesis passage curses Eve with a husband who will “rule over” her. But it also includes the hope that this is not the way things are supposed to be. God didn’t create our relationships to work this way– he created us to be “one flesh,” in complete unity. And he sent Adam and Eve out into a world that would be hard, and full of struggles– but struggles and trials they could defeat together.