Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Can a Complementarian Man Submit to His Wife?

I'm a complementarian, and after I divulge the following secret, I'm likely to be seen by some as one of the most dangerous kinds: the kind that doesn't believe in the use of birth control. Now, with that one statement I probably just lost all of the egalitarian readers of this blog and ninety-nine percent of the complementarians! Don't worry, I'm not writing to promote my radical vision, but to give an example of how I think servant leadership plays out in a complementarian relationship.

My conviction about birth control has nothing to do with any particular notion about Biblical manhood or womanhood. Rather, it dates back to a conversation I had in high school with a young Christian teacher who was about to marry a local minister. One day, this woman happened to mention that she would probably become pregnant right after she got married. When asked why, she stated that they were not planning to use birth control. When asked why she would consider anything so ludicrous, she answered simply, "We just don't see it as trusting God." At the time, I thought she was nuts, and I told her so in no uncertain terms. Yet over the course of the next several months, I found myself unable to get around the simple logic of her statement. After much prayer, I concluded that whatever God's will for others, his will for me did not include the use of contraception.

This unusual stance played a major role in my dating life throughout college. Would any woman in this day and age marry a man whose personal convictions could potentially lead her to bear and raise lots and lots of children? I was always very up front about my convictions so that the women I pursued would have ample opportunity to count the costs of a life spent with me.

Lisa and I had our first child a couple months after our first anniversary. Our second was born just sixteen months later. Our third, a girl who was particularly demanding, was born sixteen months after that! So there we were, with three children under three, and a conception rate which, when projected into the future, had us rivaling the Gilbreths well before there could be any hope of Menopause!

We couldn't say that we hadn't considered the possibility of this situation, but counting the cost of a conviction and actually living it out are sometimes two very different things. Physically exhausted, stressed out, worried about the future, and probably more than a little Post-Partum, Lisa began asking me about the possibility of using birth-control. At first, I tried to give her perspective and reassure her, I made it clear that I still believed this was God's will for our family, I pointed out the need to follow God's will even when it proves personally costly, and I generally tried to get her to see things my way. I also prayed repeatedly that if this was truly God's will for our family, he would change Lisa's heart. Conversely, I prayed that if I had gotten it wrong all these years, God would change mine.

As time went by, I saw my wife become more and more desperate. It was clear she was feeling trapped by my convictions and frustrated by my stubbornness. So I went for a long walk, during which I prayed, "Lord, I can cling to my convictions and destroy my wife, or I can show her that she means more to me than my convictions." When I returned home, I told Lisa that we could begin using birth control, and we did so for the next nine months.

During that time, I continued to believe that God's will for our family did not include contraception, and I continued to pray that God would either change Lisa's heart or change mine. Eventually, Lisa came to her own conclusion about God's will for our family, and we have not used contraception since. Our fourth child was born a full three years after the third. She is now almost seven, and we have not conceived again. Lisa is now eager for another child and we are praying that God will enable us to conceive once more.

My point in telling this story is not to get us hung up on the issue of contraception, but to give a real practical example of complementarianism in action. In some respects, I "submitted" or "yielded" to my wife's need to use contraception, even when I did not believe it was "God's will" for us. Some complementarians might see this as a breakdown of male leadership, an abdication of husbandly authority. Egalitarians on the other hand might see this as an example of practical egalitarianism and "mutuality" in action. Personally, I see it as the best example in my own life of male headship done right.

You see, just as I believed it was God's will for our family not to rely on birth control, I also believed that my marriage to Lisa was God's will. If he truly gave me this woman to be my wife, then I had to take seriously my call to take care of her. If she was truly my "co-heir of the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7), I had to take seriously her sense of what God's will might be. And if I truly believed that God is there and that he is not silent (to borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer), then I had to trust that he would ultimately make his will known to both of us.

I know egalitarians tire of complementarians using military analogies, but no one questions the leadership of a general who refuses to lead his troops into a situation they're not ready for. The guy who led the "Charge of the Light Brigade" might have thought he was boldly exercising his leadership, but in reality he was stupidly sacrificing his men. In much the same way, I could have pushed my wife beyond what she could bear for the sake of clinging to "my" convictions, and I have no doubt she would have "submitted" to me. Yet in the process I would have deeply wounded her trust in my leadership and her security in my love. Instead, I set my own vision aside and trusted God to lead both my wife and myself in the direction he saw fit. In the end, Lisa had the opportunity to make sure that this was a calling she had received from God, rather than one which had merely been dictated by me. Likewise, I had the opportunity to see God's faithfulness to communicate his will to both of us, so that leadership is not burdensome and submission is not forced. For all these reasons, the decision to love my wife more than my convictions is one of the few "leadership decisions" I've made which I've never regretted.