Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Power and Submission in a Cross-Shaped Marriage

In response to Rachel Held Evans' call for bloggers to make a case for egalitarianism, I have written this post on how Kara and I make our egalitarian marriage work. I have shared some of these thoughts on this blog before, but I have never addressed this as a topic specifically.

Ten years ago, neither Kara or I could cook. We knew how to make some things that tasted good, but we were recipe followers. Even when it made little sense.

We'd been married almost a year when my friend Taylor visited us in Louisville for a couple of days. I made dinner. We had a cookbook that my sister-in-law made for us when we got married. We still love the recipes in this book. Those meals got us through those first years of marriage when we needed detailed recipes to help us find our way from the fridge to the table.

I chose the one recipe with a typo.

It was chicken spaghetti. The recipe should have said to drain the noodles when they were cooked. It didn't. It said to pour the undrained noodles into the cheese sauce. Trusting my capable sister-in-law over my own misgivings, that is what I did.

It did not look like I thought it would, but I didn't question the recipe.

Kara came home. Taylor arrived. We sat down to dinner. And we made the most out or chicken spaghetti soup.

I know a lot of guys with stories like that. It's usually followed by a statement like, "That's why my wife does all the cooking."

To be fair to them, I should admit that my wife does almost all of the cooking in our family. But I have learned to cook. I am a good cook.

When we got married, we didn't divvy up our roles according to gender. I do yard work because Kara has bad allergies, not because I am a guy. Kara cooks because she loves it (and because she doesn't want to gain the weight that my favorite foods tend to add), not because she is a woman.

Neither did we divvy up our roles according to what we already knew how to do. Neither of knew how to cook very well. I was barely passable at most household chores. But we learned.

We have an egalitarian marriage and it works. It works without preconceived gender roles. It works without one of us having the final say.

I have never tried to put my foot down about something, but Kara submits to me regularly. And when she does so, I know that she is submitting to me out of love. Not duty.

Kara has never tried to put her foot down either, but I submit to her regularly. I hope that when I do so, she knows that I am doing it out of love. Not just because I don't want to be perceived as a chauvinist or because I am playing up the role of a martyr.

We decided before we got married that we would practice mutual submission. We even wrote it into our vows that way.

Let's face it, even in the most conservative marriages, both partners wield some power over the other.

In our wedding, we both promised to use the power we wielded over one another in a way consistent with how Christ wielded his power over the church: he gave his life for it. (That is what cross-shaped power looks like. It looks like the cross--the cross where the man who could have exploited his equality with God for his own purposes refused to wield his power at all.) We also both promised to willingly submit to one another in the manner that the church is expected to submit to Christ. I have since used some version of these vows in every wedding I have performed. After every one of those weddings, I have been flooded with positive comments about this. I have yet to receive a negative comment about it (though I do know that negative comments are less likely in the real world--as opposed to the virtual world of the Internet).

Some might suggest that I am playing fast and loose with the biblical text here. I disagree. What is more important? Doing what the text seems to be asking you to do or becoming what the text is asking you to become? I assume that we are called to do what we are called to do not as a test of obedience but as a means to become what God wants us to become.

We interpret other texts like this all of the time (like the rich young ruler text in which Jesus asks him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor). The Ephesians text is about more than marriage. It's about power dynamics and how following Christ influences them. It's about refusing to fight for power. It's about refusing to wield what power you have selfishly. Since both partners have power, both partners need to listen to both sides of the equation.

One of the frequent knocks against the idea of an egalitarian marriage is that there is no one to break the stalemate if both parties disagree. (Richard Beck addressed this issue in his post today.) All I can say is that Kara and I have made some tough decisions in our ten years of marriage. At times, we have disagreed. We have argued. We have even hurt each other's feelings. But we have never been in a stalemate. We have always found consensus. Consensus sometimes calls for submission, but I can't see how any loving relationship can sustain itself if the same partner is called to submit every time.

To be fair, most of the long-married couples I know that insist that the husband has the final say are couples in which the husband rarely insists on his way. (They can usually tell a story with laughter about the one time he did!) In my opinion, they are practicing mutual submission too. They are just calling it something different. (I also think this exposes patriarchal marriage as an unworkable model for mutual happiness, but that will have to wait for another day.)

Patriarchy is simple. If it has an advantage, that is surely it. Patriarchy also existed in the cultures we read about in the Bible. That is different than saying that patriarchy is prescribed by the Bible--just as it is in the case of slavery.

But like slavery, patriarchy is bad for people. It's bad for women. And anything that is bad for women is bad for all of us. (Even in the most patriarchal societies, wars have been fought over offenses to women).

Egalitarianism is more complex. It's harder to describe. It takes two willing partners who are both willing to be creative, submissive, and to work hard at it, but it's good for people. Men and women.

It is hard work. But it is also the most natural thing in the world once you live into it. Unlike patriarchy, egalitarianism does not need limits. When carried to its extreme, patriarchy is abusive. Patriarchy calls one partner to put herself second even if it means losing herself in doing so.

Conversely, when egalitarianism is carried to its extreme, it begins to look like what theologians describe when they speak about the inner life of the Triune God or when Paul talks about the relationship to Christ and the church. Egalitarianism calls us to be people who can put ourselves second without losing who God created us to be in the first place. It may be a big word that we can't find in the Bible, but I believe it is a concept that stems from what the Bible is calling us to become.

I don't feel the need to tinker in other people's marriages. If you do marriage differently that we do, please know that I respect the way you do yours. If it works (and I mean it works for both of you), leave it alone. If anything, I merely want to invite you to think about how you do make it work in a fresh light.

Everyone in a relationship has power over the other. Everyone has to submit to make a relationship work. The question is whether or not we are going to wield power and submit to one another in cross-shaped ways. That is what truly biblical marriage is all about.

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