Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lessons from a Spaghetti Jar

In a recent comment thread, someone pointed to an interview with a complementarian woman who describes how submission to her husband plays out in every day life. Some of the things she lists include:

Responding to the priorities he has established in the realms of caring for the home, such as cooking, cleaning . . . and any other tasks he delegates to me.

Regularly sharing my “to do” list with him and asking him if anything should be removed or added, which items are his priorities for me to do, etc.

Providing companionship in ways that are meaningful to him. In our marriage this includes things like getting up early to have breakfast with him, not only so I can prepare it for him but also because he appreciates spending a little time with me in the morning.

It also includes joyfully greeting him when he comes home at the end of the day, relaxing with him when he desires to relax together (even if my ‘to do’ list beckons), giving him my attention when he wants to talk (even if I am tempted to be distracted by something else).

When asked what was the biggest surprise to her about marriage, she wrote:

I never anticipated how many times we would disagree on small things, mostly matters of preference, and how I was not at all entitled to have my own way on these things just because they were small, or just because they fell under the category of home management, or for any other reason. (Just to give you an idea, I’m talking about dumb little things like how long to store an opened jar of spaghetti sauce in the fridge before it gets thrown away.) My husband might make a decision at times based on my input, but he’s not obligated to do this.

What are we to make of this woman's perspective on submission? One egalitarian wrote, "I think the clear implication is that she looks after the home in every way and she is not entitled to make a decision about how long the spaghetti jar stays open in the fridge." A complementarian then responded with an alternative understanding: perhaps the husband threw out the spaghetti jar without consulting her about it, she got upset, and later realized it wasn't a big deal. When last I checked, the discussion of the spaghetti jar is still ongoing.

The spaghetti jar incident illustrates the challenges of the complegalitarian debate in microcosm. When personal experiences are shared, we inevitably view them from the outside looking in, and there is a world of context which we have not been given. Yet the temptation to draw conclusions about these personal experiences is overwhelming. Our minds are designed to interpret new information as well as to receive it, and so we immediately take the story and view it through the lens of our own presuppositions.

Is it possible that the spaghetti jar incident gives us a window into a marriage where the husband micromanages the wife? Certainly it is. Much of what this woman wrote makes me squirm, because if her husband is demanding that he be able to review her to-do list and decide when food should be thrown out, this couple's understanding of headship and submission needs some serious modification.

On the other hand, if these are not things her husband requires, but things which she does voluntarily in order to bless him and show her love to him, her description of what submission looks like becomes much less uncomfortable. My wife often asks me about her plans for a given day, not because I require it but because she likes to use me as a sounding board and because she wants to know if I have something that will affect those plans. Likewise, I usually check with her before scheduling something. In a good marriage, this kind of stuff has more to do with courtesy and unity than with control.

Getting back to the spaghetti jar incident, is it plausible that the husband simply threw something away that he thought was bad and she was the one with the control issue? I don't see why not. Conflicts in marriage often arise as the result of little things that one spouse or the other gets frustrated over.

So it could be that this woman or her husband merely has a pet peeve about wasting food, or it could be that he obsessively inspects the cupboards like the husband in Sleeping With the Enemy. Both are plausible interpretations, but only one of them (or perhaps neither of them) is true. The point is that we just don't know for sure. Before the "spaghetti jar incident" becomes a permanent part of complegalitarian lore, maybe somebody should contact this woman and ask for more detail about who did what with the spaghetti!

Much like the story of the spaghetti jar, the Bible passages we see as relevant to the complegalitarian debate are open to interpretation, and there is a lot about the context of these passages we just don't know. Both sides tire of the other acting as if its own interpretations are self-evident, and rightly so. In reality, each camp's interpretation of a given passage may be more or less plausible, and the jury is still out on which one is true. Perhaps neither camp has it right! This is, again, why we need to make the effort to listen to one another, question our own interpretive assumptions, and do our best to "step into each other's shoes." If we can read this much into a passing reference to a spaghetti jar, what are we reading into the Scriptures?