In order to understand complementarian marriage, you have to start by tossing out everything the Bible says about marriage roles and begin with a foundation of egalitarian marriage. Then add back a thin veneer of headship, focusing on headship sounding principles which are calculated to least offend modern feminist sensibilities.
I’ll start with the base 95% of complementarian marriage: egalitarian marriage. Dr. Wayne Grudem explains the base of complementarian marriage in A Balanced Look at Roles (emphasis mine):
…how does it work? How does it work in practice?”
In our own marriage, Margaret and I talk frequently and at length about many decisions. I can tell you that I wouldn’t be here tonight unless Margaret and I had talked about this and asked the Lord about it, and she had given blessing to it, and said, “Yes, I think that’s right.” Sometimes we make large decisions such as buying a house or a car, and sometimes they are small decisions like where we should go for a walk together. I often defer to Margaret’s wishes, and she often defers to mine because we love each other.
In almost every case, each of us has some wisdom and insight that the other does not have. Usually, we reach agreement on the decisions that we make. Very seldom will I do something that she doesn’t think is wise–I didn’t say never.
So far, this is pure egalitarianism, or if you prefer, “mutual submission”. Note the implication that love means they almost never disagree.
In Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism: Biblical Responses to the Key Questions Grudem explains that complementarian couples nearly always come to mutual agreement because God makes them one flesh:
The biblical ideal is that the husband is to be both loving and humble in his leadership. The wife is to be both joyful and intelligent in her submission. Practically, this means that they will frequently talk about many decisions, both large and small. This also means that both the husband and the wife will listen to the other’s unique wisdom and insight related to the decision. Often one will defer to the other in the decision; rarely will they differ greatly in the decision (for the Lord has made them “one flesh”).
Now that we have defined the base 95% of complementarian marriage (egalitarian marriage), we add in the remaining 5% of non threatening, non offensive headship. But since the word headship is itself too offensive to feminist sensibilities, many prefer the term servant leader. Whatever you call it, this 5% is calculated to be as non threatening as possible while seeming something like headship, but it is not biblical headship. We can understand what this looks like by Grudem’s description of what is missing when it is absent. When husbands are “wimps”, what exactly is missing?
Opposite the errors of aggression are errors of passivity. They are equally wrong. When a husband abdicates his leadership responsibilities by not disciplining his children, not caring for the family’s physical or spiritual needs, or not defending his wife and children when verbally attacked by a friend or relative (these are just a few examples), then his acting as a wimp does not fit the role God designed for him in marriage.
When Grudem says a husband is being a wimp by being too passive, he doesn’t mean the husband isn’t leading his wife in any meaningful sense of the term. He means the husband isn’t doing a laundry list of things every wife is tempted to nag her husband into doing. None of these things are threatening or offensive to all but the most radical feminist woman. Even better, under this definition anything you want to manipulate husbands into doing can be framed as “leadership”, including dating/wooing their wife and telling her she is pretty.
There is another component to the veneer of headship complementarians place on top of egalitarian marriage, and that is responsibility. While complementarian decisions are made using the same process egalitarians use, the difference is the husband is responsible for every decision made using the egalitarian process. As Grudem explains in Countering:
But in every decision that involves both the husband and wife, whether large or small, and whether they agree or not, the responsibility to make the decision rests with the husband. Therefore, male headship makes a difference every day in the marriage relationship.
This is egalitarian marriage with a female friendly cherry on top. If your husband isn’t giving you your way, he must not really love you. But even when he gives you your way, he is always responsible for any bad outcomes. Only the most hard core feminist woman could find fault with such an arrangement.
Grudem makes the same point in Balanced:
But in every decision that we make that affects us together or affects our family, the responsibility to make the decision rests with me. If there is genuine male headship, I believe there is a quiet acknowledgement that the focus of the decision making process is the husband, not the wife. Even though there will often be much discussion and there should be mutual respect and consideration of each other, ultimately the responsibility to make the decision rests with the husband. And so, in our marriage the responsibility to make the decision rests with me.
- Nearly all decisions are made by coming to consensus. If husbands are making decisions their wives disagree with, someone isn’t loving the other well enough; to understand who this someone might be, consider which spouse Scripture instructs to focus on submitting, and which spouse is to focus on loving. Alternately, perhaps they aren’t really married, since if they were one flesh this wouldn’t be happening. In a world of rampant divorce because wives don’t “feel loved” and/or decide they were tricked into marrying the wrong man, this is gasoline on the fire of rebellion and broken homes.
- Husbands need to defer to the better judgment of their wives on a regular basis.
- No matter who made the decision, and even though it must be made using the egalitarian process, the husband is responsible.
For comparison, consider a very typical description of egalitarian marriage from a woman who started out as a complementarian:
We make all major decisions together. Since each of us starts out willing to yield to the other, any disagreements are usually resolved in favor of who the issue is more important to. But if we disagree, we have to talk and pray until we find consensus. He doesn’t have an “I make the final decision if we disagree” trump card.
On the other hand, since back in our complementarian days, he never actually used this trump card, this makes no practical difference. We have always sought consensus. He has never wanted to override me.
The practical decision making process is the same in both models. The difference is the removal of the veneer of headship (emphasis mine):
In short, our marriage has not changed all that much in its outward appearance. The difference is in our attitudes. I can no longer coast along, letting the responsibility for everything rest on him. I have to step up and take responsibility alongside him, shouldering with him the adult load. Any rules that we set for the household and children, we must both be fully willing to enforce. And once we got used to this, we both liked it much better.
Indeed. If you insist on having an egalitarian marriage in structure, it is far better not to pretend that it is traditional.