A podcast listener named Ted writes in: “I understand that episode number 798 — Could a Complementarian / Egalitarian Marriage Work — was a warning for anyone entering into a marriage, but what about those of us who find ourselves already in a complementarian / egalitarianian marriage already? According to you, Pastor John, it is a sin to leave and it is a sin to sacrifice conscience to make the marriage work. What options does a complementarian husband have in such a situation?”
I found this question to be very helpful. In fact, I think I am going to have to correct something that I said in episode 798. The main point of that Ask Pastor John episode, stands, I think; namely, that I would discourage a marriage between two believers with deeply held, but contradictory views of the roles of husband and wife; that is, one being an egalitarian and one being a complementarian. I think it will also stand that if such a marriage goes forward or has already happened — which is what we are being asked about — it is inevitable that the effort to make it work will involve sin. Now I will explain in a minute what I mean by that phrase, “involve sin.” That is a different way of saying it than I said in episode 798. So here is where the correction is needed in what I said.
What I stressed there was that the reason there would be sin in such a marriage inevitably is that the conscience of one or the other spouse would have to be compromised to make the marriage work and it is a sin to compromise your conscience. Now I think my last sentence was this. I went back and jotted it down: Walking into a marriage with this level of disagreement about your respective roles would be walking into a relationship that is sin to leave — a divorce — in which someone must sin to make it work.
What I meant, in the context, in that last phrase was that someone must sin because someone must compromise his conscience. But the longer I have thought about this, the less comfortable I am saying that the compromises one might have to make in such a marriage are necessarily compromises of conscience.
In other words, I think I can say to those of you who are in such marriages — whether you moved in intentionally or slipped in because somebody changed his mind later, where the husband and wife do not agree on the role of husband and wife — it may be possible to make concessions for the sake of preserving the marriage which do not necessarily compromise your conviction or your conscience.
Let me try to illustrate. Suppose he is a complementarian and believes he should take the lead in calling his wife and family together for Bible reading and prayer each evening, and suppose she is an egalitarian and bristles at the thought that his calling her and the children together is a responsibility invested in him simply because he is the husband and the father. She doesn’t like that. Now suppose that he makes a practice of gently, joyfully inviting the family. “Let’s” — the word is “let’s” not “come” — “Let’s gather,” inviting the family to gather in the living room each night.
His wife may believe that this practice is based on her husband’s unbiblical views — that is the way he is taking initiative here and doing it consistently — but may concede to the practice for the sake of peace in the home. She doesn’t change her egalitarian view of the Scripture and she doesn’t see her behavior as a compromise of conscience because she is preserving what she perceives as a higher good; namely, the sanctity and peace of the marriage. I think she is not sinning against her conscience in that specific choice. That is a correction, I think, from what I said last time.
Now let’s suppose that as the husband consistently takes the initiative to invite his wife and the children together for Bible reading, she increasingly bristles at this and becomes resistant to this view of headship. She eventually refuses to come when he asks and she does not see this refusal as sinful, because she thinks he is acting with a high hand, because it is not taught in the Bible that he should take that kind of initiative as husband. He continues to invite her, not demand that she come. He sees that she is becoming increasingly resistant and angry. And so he decides to say to her that he won’t press her anymore with invitations, but will wait until she is ready or willing to come and then proceeds with the kids. I don’t think he has acted against his conscience in that specific choice. He has not changed his views. He wishes things were otherwise, but for the sake of the larger endurance of the marriage, he relents in the exercise of his leadership over his wife at that point.
What did I mean earlier when I said, at the beginning, that for this marriage to work it is going to inevitably involve sin? I realize all marriages between sinners inevitably involve sin. I am not saying something as banal as that. What I am thinking is that the particular dynamics created by differing convictions about headship and submission will lead to particular kinds of sin that could be avoided if that kind of marriage were avoided. The sins that I have in mind would include something like this.
If he is the complementarian and backs away from the leadership he believes he should take because she is resistant, then I think sin is involved in that resistance. But if he is the complementarian and she adapts to his leadership for the sake of peace, it is almost inevitable — given human nature — that she is at some point going to become resentful towards his leadership or he is going to become sinfully suspicious that she is just acting insincerely. In other words, the deeply held disagreement, which is not peripheral, but central to their daily lives, makes those kinds of temptations to sin very, very likely and hard to resist.
So the upshot of this particular Ask Pastor John episode is to confirm a part of episode 798; namely, that a marriage between a complementarian and an egalitarian is unadvisable, but also to correct the part of episode 798; namely, that the compromises one might have to make to cause such a marriage to persevere and, to the degree possible, flourish are not necessarily sinful compromises of conscience.