My husband and I have spent the last year in group programs and individual counselling which teaches what healthy relationships actually look like, what mutual submission looks like. He has been learning that I am his equal. He has been un-learning the dangerous principles he was taught by many within the church. And slowly, he has been changing the way he treats me.
It takes years, a lifetime of beliefs, to develop these behaviors. And it will take years to deconstruct them. It's slow and it's painful, as change sometimes is. But as equal partners, we finally have hope moving forward.
My husband and I were married in 2012. We've been separated three times since then. As of February, this last stretch will have been 13 months. That's a long time apart, and it needed to happen.
Years ago, a seed was planted in both my husband and me. This seed was the idea that husbands lead, get the final say, and have authority over their wives. It was planted by the church and watered for years, through sermons and Sunday school and youth groups, until it sprouted and grew into a set of deeply rooted beliefs and behaviors that tangled and choked our marriage.
Because my husband grew up believing that he would have authority over his wife, he acted like it. He treated me like a child and called me "defiant" when I pushed back. His behaviors were abusive, but he was never taught that they were abusive or told that I was his equal. He was taught to treat me like a pretty ornament, showering me with gifts and compliments. He was taught that he was to love me and I was to respect him in return.
But what I actually needed was support and encouragement and independence. I needed to be a person who developed to my fullest potential as a human being. I needed respect.
Because I grew up hearing the same things from the church, I felt like I couldn't breathe. What was I supposed to do? WAS I just being defiant?
My mom was independent and my grandma had gumption. I don't think I ever completely understood the implications of the husband being in charge because the women in my life had such strong minds of their own. But here I was, expected to fill a role I hadn't prepared myself for.
Last February, my husband and I went on a marriage cruise put on by a Christian organization. It was eye-opening, and not in a great way.
On this cruise, I listened to a lineup of talks about how making it "just one more year" in marriage is what matters.
I wondered, at what point has the church made marriage into an idol?
I heard speakers talk or shout about the importance of hierarchy in marriage. One of them even said that his wife was not allowed to leave him, and he would follow her if she did.
I wondered, how many women in the audience were afraid of their husbands?
While on a tour bus, I watched a man physically wrestle his wife's cell phone out of her hands while she cried out in pain. The founder of the organization and his wife sat less than 10 feet away. They whispered and turned their heads, ignoring the situation. When we got off the bus, they rushed back onto the ship, leaving the couple behind.
I slipped that woman a note while her husband wasn't looking. Even today I wonder if I should have done more.
The following night, this founder got up and told the men, "One day, you will present your wives to God and say 'here she is Lord, without spot or blemish'."
At that point, I had more questions than answers. I still have questions.
How is it that a man is the one who presents his wife to God when Christ is the one who causes us, by His blood alone, to be without spot or blemish?
If a man has authority over his wife, what does he have the power to do if she resists?
In order for authority to exist, there needs to be something to enforce, and a righteous mechanism to enforce it. What is a husband's righteous mechanism for enforcement?
What does this authority allow the husband to decide? Does he get to choose what his wife wears? What they will eat? Which articles she reads online? How she chooses to study the Bible, and when?
Can he dictate the convictions of her heart? Can anyone dictate the convictions of another person's heart?
"Equal in value, different in roles"
This is a phrase I hear often in the church. It's almost like a mantra to some. And since it's partially true, it's slippery and hard to deconstruct.
We all have different gifts. In that sense, we can fill roles that fit with our own strengths. But this statement is about men and women. It is saying that men have one role ("leader") and women have one role ("supporter"). Where it gets muddled is in what this all means and how it actually makes sense. Because depending on who one speaks to within the church, the confines of a woman's role seem to change. The only constant in the hierarchal school of thought is this:
Women are on the bottom.
From what I have seen, in these circles, a woman's situation or role is dependant on which husband she ends up with. If he allows her to fly free and pursue her dreams, great! If not, she's left to pray harder and submit more, hoping that God or her own obedience will soften him somehow.
The idea that people think a man and woman can be given the same spiritual gifts, but have different limitations on those gifts based on their body parts, with the idea that they're still somehow equal in value is beyond me.
The idea that anyone can compare a marriage, and the intimacy that comes with it, with a corporation or with the military, makes no sense.
Equality adjusts "Equal in value, different in roles" and makes it what it should be, what God says we are:
EQUAL IN VALUE. Period.
I would like to add that throughout my journey in equality, I've been drawn to James 3:17: “ But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”
Here's the thing: my goal is not to fight. It feels like so many of us are in fights. Deep lines have been drawn in the Christian sand. There are believers on both sides of this thing, glaring and shouting at one another. We have become so concerned with right-ness, that we sometimes - I sometimes - forget that loving people comes first.
We as Christians often forget that the wisdom from Heaven isn't proud. It doesn't stomp around in indignation, or use the Bible as a weapon. It isn't smug and it doesn't try to get the last word online. It doesn't dehumanize those who disagree.
The wisdom from Heaven looks to find a compassionate understanding. We'll never have all the answers. More knowledge often only leads to more questions. But we need to be kinder, more gentle, and yielding to one another through these conversations.