8 Ways to Order Your Marriage.

As Brenna and I have been facing big decisions over the last few months, it’s been neat to see that way God has transformed our marriage from its fledgling stages to something a little more beautiful.

It’s also got me thinking about the whole complementarian/egalitarian debate, and how my views over the years – though still complementarian – have shifted from a kind of misogynistic immaturity to what Brenna and I both perceive to be a more Christ-like model.

It’s made me realize there aren’t just two positions on this: egalitarianism and complementarianism – and when people are arguing against one or the other, they’re normally arguing against a flawed diversion, rather than the real thing.

That being said, let me lay out a few different options:

Misogyny: The husband asserts his desires, the wife submits. Though this is what chiefly comes to mind to those in the egal. camp, this is the furthest thing from the biblical picture of complementarianism possible. Unfortunately many, wounded from a history of misogyny, reject all hierarchy within families whole-sale based on their experience.

If I’m honest, both my wife and I came into marriage with a subconscious commitment to this kind of relationship, and the results were not only personally devastating, but anti-gospel. Jesus never asserts his personal desires over and above his bride.

Matriarchy: The wife asserts her desires, the husband submits. Though I doubt any would publicly subscribe to this, it is, unfortunately, a settled pattern in many Christian homes. In this model, the husband mistakes weakness for meekness and, rather than honoring his wife, becomes bitter and distant (in effect dishonoring her).

Jesus was not weak, he was meek – he asserted his bride’s good, he didn’t passively give into it.

Pragmatism: We both assert our desires, and we both win. The reason this sounds so ideal is that it is so idealistic. The truth is, we don’t have the time, energy and resources to try and make ‘win-wins’ out of every minute situation in life. Nor, I might add, does this sound much like the Christ who called us to marriage.

It’s a hunch, but I doubt Jesus came to earth saying: “You get what you can out of this, and I’ll get what I can.” Pragmatism (a focus on what works), is a denial of the purpose of marriage – the point of marriage is not to do the greatest good to the greatest number (both of us, in this case), but to assert the image of Christ and the church to a watching world (Ephesians 5:23). So “work”, in this case, is contingent upon a definition of marriage’s purpose which goes little beyond realizing my own, personal desires.

Besides, if “work” means, “does what it’s meant to do”, then pragmatism, in that sense, doesn’t “work”.

Naivety: We’ll never disagree. Point 1: Okay, sure. Point 2: Jesus called us to be peacemakers, and that in the church. This assumes there will be conflict, and it assumes a non-passive approach. We’re not called to be peace-keepers, but makers, meaning: we have work to do.

A quick read through the New Testament ought to wash us clean of this one. Jesus had (has) conflict with his bride, and he’s perfect. So, to put it strangely – if there’s no conflict, something’s wrong.

Democracy: We both assert our desires, and someone wins. The truth will out, is the thought here. Except, there’s no real “truth” to whether we ought to go out for ice-cream or pizza. No argument can solve it. There’s no “right” answer to whether we should move to California or Timbuktu – these are morally neutral issues. In fact, let me be controversial: there’s no real truth as to whether the house should be clean or messy. We attach virtues to these things because we inherently view our personalities like good Pharisees – we make rules from them, and work outward.

Besides, this looks nothing like Christ and the church. Notice I’m not saying that we shouldn’t communicate our desires to one another: communicating our vulnerability is actually an investment, not a withdrawal. It’s a compliment to say, “I need you.” But saying, “Therefore, you must do this” is patently wrong on every account.

Coldness: Neither of us assert our desires, and no one submits. Clearly, when you’ve reached this point, there’s bitterness and the whole operation’s gone amuck. Jesus communicates his desires toward us, and he invites us to communicate our desires to him. So – this is radically anti-gospel as well. This is a roommate scenario, not a Song of Solomon one.

Absurdity: Both of us assert the others’ desire, and no one submits. This is the closest to true complementarianism, but it’s only flaw is that it’s absurd. I believe it is in The Four Loves that C.S. Lewis points out that two people sitting at a dining table insisting that they pour the others’ tea has less to do with love and more to do with absurd false-humility. The beautiful thing about complementarianism is that it’s just like this, without the absurdity, which leads us to…

Complementary: Both of us assert the others’ desire, and the wife submits. In a recent decision my wife and I made, it became clear that our desires were in conflict. The position being offered to us would have been a wonderful fit for one of us, and a terrible fit for the other. Sparing you the details, it became evident to both of us the beautiful irony of the situation: Brenna was insisting that we do things my way. And I was insisting we do things in a way that was best for her.

And because we are complementation, I “won out” in the end: I asserted her desires over mine.

That is a long and winding journey, but I think it’s good for many of us to hear, on every side of the debate. While we think we may be in one camp, we may actually be in some permutation of it that is actually unrecognizable from its original intent. The truth is, the real model is like two people leaning toward one another for balance – it’s a total act of trust on both parts, and it requires an “all in” approach, not something half-baked.

But when we both lean in – curiously – it forms something like a steeple.

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Posted in Leadership, Uncategorized.


Nicholas McDonald is a blogger, pastor, and author of the book "Faker: How to Be Real When You're Tempted to Fake it." He studied creative writing and communication at Oxford University and Olivet Nazerene University, and received his M.Div from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Lexington, NC, with his wife and two boys, Caleb and Owen.


  1. So in the complimentary option you’ve settled on, how does a couple decide between ice cream and pizza?

    It strikes me, to use your definitions, the ideal egalitarian marriage might be “mutual submission”, i.e. each spouse seeks the others’ good before his or her own, followed by “democracy” when there’s an impasse.

    In the ice cream / pizza example it might go like this:

    Him: “Should we go out for ice cream or pizza?”
    Her: “Good question; do you prefer one over the other?”
    Him: “Not really; how about you?”
    Her: “Me neither.”
    Him: “Well, who picked last time?”
    Her: “Me. Guess it’s your turn.”
    Him: “Ice cream it is. You get next.”

    Or possibly:

    Her: “Should we go out for ice cream or pizza?”
    Him: “Good question; do you prefer one over the other?”
    Her: “I’m kind of feeling the pizza.”
    Him: “Great. Pizza it is.” (Even if he might actually prefer ice cream)

    What’s interesting about this example is that if I had to guess I’d say it goes down roughly similarly in healthy complimentarian marriages. So maybe decisions as minor as ice cream vs. pizza aren’t great for teasing out the differences between complimentarian and egalitarian marriages?

    • Maybe it’s not the best place for it, I’m not sure. It sounds to me, if I’m understanding you correctly, that things may actually look very alike in an egalitarian vs. complementarian model – but my question is, who is being more consistent with their theology?

      • I would say that applying complementarian principles to “ice cream vs. pizza” is probably a misapplication of those principles and theologically off base.

        At issue is “When is it advisable for a husband to override his wife’s wishes, and for her to submit to his decision?” Given husbands are called to self-sacrificially love their wives and seek their wives’ good before their own, probably the only time a husband should “override” is when the wife’s wishes are not in her best interests. And there needs to be some threshold of “significance”. For instance, I’m guessing you wouldn’t deem it appropriate for a husband to dictate which (modest) dress to his wife should wear to a job interview if the two of them disagreed about which looks best.

        So back to ice cream vs. pizza: it seems to me that since neither choice is significantly in the wife’s “best interests” the husband, even in a complementarian model, should seek to defer to his wife’s preference. And she, loving him, should seek to defer to his preference. When two preferences differ, democracy seems like the way to go.

        More generally it often seems like the marriages of “reasonable” god-fearing, mutually self-sacrificial complementarians are functionally equivalent to the marriages of god-fearing, mutually self-sacrificial egalitarians.

        What I find most interesting are the “real life” examples that highlight a difference between the two. That is, where a complementarian couple would behave differently from an egalitarian couple.

        Are there any other examples you can share from your own marriage? You mentioned the one w/ the job opportunity that would have been great for you but that you declined (contrary to her preference) because it was not in her best interests. My wife and I have a fairly egalitarian marriage, and I suspect that if we’d faced the same situation I would have done the same as you, and she would have been okay with it. Again, functionally equivalent.

        If anything, that example seems like one of mutual submission. The opportunity arises and she says to you, “You should totally do that,” even though she knows it’ll be tough on her. Because she loves you and seeks your good before her own. You respond, “No, I will decline, because I know it will be tough on you.” Because you love her and seek her good before your own. And then she graciously accepts your sacrifice on her behalf.

  2. I like where you start going on this, Nick, but based on scripturally sound doctrine I’d go a step beyond the comp model you describe, one I’ll call mutuality. It’s based on Genesis 2 as affirmed By Jesus: the two shall become one. If there decisions to be made, neither person has the final say. On some decisions, of course, it might look just like Buddy’s first example: I chose last time so you choose this time.

    But if a couple truly can’t agree it might very well be an indication that the issue at hand is not yet ripe for decision. The couple-who-is-one will continue to work through things until they mutually agree. That may mean one sees the wisdom in the other’s position, or they both may modify their positions because of the wisdom the other has offered. It also may mean that one submits to the other’s choice, or sometimes it means not finalizing the decision at all and moving on to something else.

    One thing marriage is not, though: marriage is not a democracy where each person has a say but one person’s vote always has veto power over the other person’ vote. Two becoming one means much more than that. (http://wp.me/p2EmLc-2zM)

    • Well, as Bobby points out below, we’re actually probably not too far from one another in practice – although, I don’t think practice is all Paul has in mind here, but spiritual reality.

      On the oneness concept, you make a good point. I just would say “oneness” is more of a vague concept, it seems, than the picture Paul gives us of the mystery of marriage found in the gospel. And I don’t think oneness means homogeny – we still, for example 1. Have different genders. 2. Have different tastes. 3. Have different needs – that much we can agree on, right? We don’t become the same person. So, from that I think it’s not a stretch to suggest we also 4. Have different opinions. I think it’d be scary if we didn’t, don’t you?

      Then again, your wife married a lawyer…so you surely do a better job of shoring up everyone’s opinion than I can 😉

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