As I picked up our stack of mail recently and began to sift through it, I came across an envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Bryan Irons. It was a form letter from an agency I have supported for over twenty years.
I’ve often wondered who this Mrs. Bryan is. I mean, since she is, after all, Mrs. Bryan, I suppose she must be, like Mr. Bryan, a math whiz, able to solve complex algebraic equations, sometimes using one of those calculators that has more buttons with symbols on them than ones with numbers. I also imagine she must be focused on details, content to ignore the whole picture if only she can fully concentrate on one tiny aspect of something, for sure a can’t see the trees for the forest kind of person.
I surmise that since I’ve not yet met Mrs. Bryan in the twenty years of receiving similar letters from this agency, or the seventeen years of letters from the seminary where I graduated and where Bryan never attended, or the miscellaneous missives that are sent by various family members, she isn’t going to emerge anytime soon.
But her constant presence in my life encourages me to think about the myriad ways in which it is easy for women to lose their identities in their marriages. It formally begins, I suppose, when women and men perform traditional rituals in their wedding ceremonies: the father “giving away the bride,” the man being told he may kiss his bride, the woman changing her last name while her spouse’s stays the same.
While these traditional practices themselves do not guarantee a marriage where women will become secondary partners, subordinating their own skills and gifts to their spouses’, an uncritical awareness and adoption of them is the potential seed out from which the slow migration toward inequality develops.
Bryan and I enjoy an egalitarian relationship where he is just as concerned about the prevalence of patriarchy as I and he is quick to hear the ways women are silenced in language, especially the language of the church. And, despite Bryan’s parental claims prior to our wedding that one of us needed to be in charge while the other one followed (make no mistake about which one was which), in our over twenty years of marriage we’ve never assumed a hierarchy was necessary in our relationship.
But in many conservative Christian circles some people try to assert the so-called Christian complementarian model for marriage. Here, they assume, the Bible instructs men to be bread-winners, to be spiritual leaders in the family, to protect their spouses (from what I’m not sure), and generally be the support for the weaker sex. And, to their credit, people who usually promote this type of marriage also claim that men should serve their spouses, being careful not to abuse their power and instead to be ever mindful of the need to cherish the gifts (wife and children, I suppose) they have been given.
I can imagine there are a few instances where this complementarian prescription works although I’m still not sure I understand the value, nor do I think it stems from a good sense of what the Bible is and how to read it.
It is an unfortunate how little Christians as a whole understand the place of Scripture in a life of faith and indeed in the life of a community. And, because of our failure to realize the Bible is intended to point to God, to help us reconnect with the Source of life and with others, we make it an encyclopedia of do’s and don’ts. As in do go to church on Sunday and don’t engage in premarital sex. We fixate on snippets here or there usually without any consideration of cultural context forgetting all along that Scripture as a whole is meant to be a tool and not an end in and of itself.
For me, the Bible has been both meaningful and hurtful, a help and a hindrance. As a young Jr. High and High School student I enjoyed reading and studying it and also felt perplexed by passages that seemed to suggest something about boys and men was inherently better than something about girls and women. As an adult I have gone through periods of time where I simply had to read something other than the Bible. In these cases, I delved into memoirs of people who had experienced similar struggles with a text that is supposed to be life-giving and yet often is anything but that.
It is a complex relationship I have with the Bible. But when I become frustrated with its patriarchal trappings, I remember it was written by people who wanted to tell others something about their experiences of God. I can embrace that perspective knowing there are contextual realities embedded in such expressions that should have no bearing on our particular context today.
Similarly, marriage is a complex relationship, one that never fits neatly in some preconceived box of “egalitarian” or “complementarian.” People have to navigate these waters together in their own unique and mysterious ways. And, hopefully, with an awareness that Scripture as a whole points to God’s dream of liberation for all people, of a reality that all persons are created in the image of God, and by the particular insight that Jesus never seemed to be wrapped up in supporting the status quo and called people to embrace a new way of living and being with no distinction given to their gender.
And so, if and when I meet this Mrs. Bryan who has stalked me for over twenty years now, I’ll know her presence exists as a possibility but I’m glad I embraced a different vision.