Complementarianism and answering Beth Moore’s valid questions

Yesterday I saw the following tweets from Beth Moore:

I didn’t reply on Twitter because (understandably) she wanted to keep replies to a ‘two tweet’ minimum. But I thought an answer on here might be worth offering. I was going to say one of those questions was a live issue for my own marriage, but I feel it’s probably wise to specify that it was the second one at issue, not the first.

The first question is relatively straightforward. The short answer is yes. I think there are some avenues I would want to explore before I signed that course of action off as Biblically legitimate. But assuming those avenues have been explored and a husband, wedded to his addiction, has effectively abandoned his wife as a result, I would say yes, that is legitimate grounds for divorce in my view. Taking the question at face value, there is an evident addiction that the individual has decided to continue in and all intimacy has gone from the marriage, that would strike me as a form of spousal abandonment and a clear break in the marriage covenant. I can see divorce being legitimate under those circumstances.

The second question is slightly trickier because (I think) it rests on an understanding of complementarianism that the first doesn’t. I am sure there are some who would argue, of the first question, that unbridled addiction to pornography is not grounds for divorce because it doesn’t tally (in their view) with Jesus’ and Paul’s affirmations of those limited grounds. Whilst some might refer to their complementarianism in answering it, I’m not convinced too many would. The question doesn’t seem to rest on any of the variant forms of complementarity or even on an egalitarian view per se (see here for a broad outline of those different views). But I can see that the second question does rely more heavily on how one works out one’s view of complementarianism.

And being both a complementarian as well as something of a mental cabbage, it is a question that comes close to home for me. In the first year of marriage, I hit on a depressive episode so serious that I ended up unable to care adequately for myself, made several attempts on my life and ended up hospitalised for a time. On certain views of complementarianism, that would pose something of a major problem. How can a total cabbage credibly lead anything when they can’t even get themselves dressed in the morning? You might not want to phrase it that way (but I can because I’m writing about myself), but that is – to be frank – a fair and valid question.

As it happens, it didn’t pose any great problem to either my, or my wife’s, view of complementarianism. Neither of us ever held to the all encompassing, complementarian-affects-the-whole-culture approach of some. My wife, for example, has always worked and that has never proven any sort of problem. She isn’t a police officer or a postman, but I don’t really think that would impinge on her being a woman if she were. I don’t think she would be leading men into sin by handing them letters, expecting them to ‘submit’ to her in doing so. That sort of stuff, as far as I’m concerned, blasts well beyond the Biblical data in the most unwarranted way.

What I do think the Bible teaches is that men are God’s designated leaders for the church and family. That is, elderships are to be male and family units are to be led by husbands. There are, coupled to that, implications for teaching the Bible too. I don’t think the Bible has more to say about complementarianism than that. The question that leaves a lot of wiggle-room is, then, this one: how should men lead their churches and families.

We have a few pointers that mainly centre on Christ. We have instructions for how elders ought to behave and conduct themselves. We also have some instructions for husbands and fathers. Jesus’ sacrificial love for his church is essentially the model in these instances (with a few bits of colour added beyond that bare statement). So, in the ordinary run of things, husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives. They are to love them as Christ loved the church. They are to set aside their own wants, needs and desires and lead in such a way that allows their wives to willingly submit to their leadership because it is a loving, sacrificial leadership that allows their spouse to flourish. That’s the kind of leadership – wherever it’s coming from – most of us would gladly submit ourselves to.

In my own marriage, then, I view my role as loving my wife self-sacrificially so that she can flourish to her full potential and express the gifts God has given to her as fully as possible. I would consider it decidedly poor household management if, for example, my wife being more gifted with finances than me, I insisted that was a “man’s role” (whatever that means) and I stopped her from overseeing our finances even though she is better at that than me. Good leadership does not mean doing everything yourself and grasping onto power, it is asking your spouse to do the things to do that she is better at (or better suited to) doing and making sure that the stuff you can do best for your family is done by you. It’s not about stereotypically ridiculous things like ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ jobs, it’s about setting up your family so that it can flourish, which means giving whoever is going to make it flourish most in any area the tasks to which they are best suited and most able to express the gifts God gave them.

That explanation is necessary for when it comes to the question of what you do when your husband is cabbaged. In the midst of major mental health problems whereby his ‘leadership’ is questionable, what does complementarianism look like then? Well, as I understand complementarianism based on what I outlined above, in principle it looks exactly the same. The husband has a duty to allow his wife to flourish in the areas that God has gifted her. His job is to do what will lead to the flourishing of the family, both in what he takes responsibility for and in whatever his wife is given to do as well.

If that is the job, what does it look like when a husband is mentally incapable of ‘leading’? In many ways, that is the wrong question. It assumes that ‘leading’ means making all the decisions and insisting on certain courses of action that are carried out by his subordinates. But that isn’t how I understand complementarity. The husband is there to help his wife (who is, likewise, to help her husband) fully express their gifts in the most appropriate ways so that the family flourishes as best it is able. That will often mean the husband delegates decision-making authority to his wife in the areas where her abilities and gifts far outstrip his. That is, as I said before, just sensible leadership. To insist on making all the decisions in matters where your spouse is eminently more qualified than you to make them is, frankly, obtuse.

So, again, back to the question of mental incapacity. In such instances, who is going to be best placed to help the family flourish? Who is going to be best placed to make decisions for the family? The one trying to down bottles of paracetamol who can’t cope with washing themselves in the morning because it induces too much anxiety; or, their mentally stable wife? The man may bear responsibility for his leadership, but any sensible leader who is incapacitated like that would be making the same sort of decisions as he does during the times when he is not incapacitated.

Who is able to bring flourishing in this situation? What needs to happen for my family to flourish? Will my family flourish more if I micro-manage every decision or will they flourish if I delegate that responsibility to somebody more able to make that decision? If those are the questions during normal circumstances, and remain the key questions during less normal seasons, the only difference is perhaps the specific answer in the moment. There may well be periods where the mentally stable husband, who is gifted in certain areas, is best placed to make certain decisions. It may well be that during times of incapacity and mental health downers that there are very few decisions he should be taking. But the basic question remains the same: who is best placed, doing what, to make my family flourish?

Now, Beth Moore’s question asked specifically, do such periods change the dynamics of Biblical submission. And, of course, relationally such serious mental health issues will change your family dynamics. How could they not? But the questions that should be asked remain the same: who, doing what, will best help my family to flourish?

Of course, in the midst of a mental health episode one is unlikely to have the wherewithal to reasonably address that question in a meaningful way. Which is why it is key to make sure that the principle about flourishing is made explicit before any such issues happen. I would expect a good wife, if she saw her husband heading down such a path (and experience tells me these are almost never one-time issues), that she would begin to take more responsibility. I would expect a sensible husband, if he could see (or his wife told him), he was heading down such a path, he would gladly relinquish certain responsibilities for the good of his family.

None of that removes the essential priority of headship. Husbands are still to lead and still bear ultimate responsibility before the Lord for the health of their family. But that is only a problem if we think headship is less about managing the family so that it might flourish and more about delineating tasks so as to establish ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles, as though taking out the bins or managing the finances has some sort of masculine quality to it.

My wife once said, in 12 years of marriage (which I appreciate, really isn’t that long), never once has there been an issue in which I had to ‘lead’ in such a way that she had to ‘submit’ to in some sort of pointed way. In practice, we just talk about things and have a discussion. She provides her insights and I provide mine. When we recognise she is better placed to make a decision on something, I lead by backing her. When I am better placed to make a decision, she submits by backing me. More often than not, it doesn’t feel like ‘leading’ and ‘submitting’, we just have a discussion and agree what to do by the end of it one way or the other. That’s all it has ever really been.

During periods of severe depression, her qualification to make credible decisions became considerably more frequent and I ‘led’ by simply giving her the right to do so when I couldn’t and she ‘submitted’ to my desire for her to make decisions by doing just that when I couldn’t. But in normal periods, it looks like having discussions and making decisions together so that our family can flourish as far as it is able. During periods of severe mental health problems, it’s less of a conversation, but no less centred on helping the family to flourish and no less a case of leading and submitting according to what seems palpably obvious as to who is best placed to recognise the wisest and most godly courses of actions.