Attending a Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) conference is not on my usual slate of retreats. Nor is "complementarian marriage seminar" on the tip of my tongue when I think of a weekend in Florida. It's time for full disclosure: I have this bent toward biblical egalitarianism.

But an article on marriage I'm writing took me to the Sunshine State, where I attended a CBMW's Different by Design conference last month. The "design" in the name did not just stand for human anatomy.

At the conference, I met women who couldn't exercise some of their gifts because of their and their husbands' interpretation of the Bible. Women were repeatedly told to submit to their husbands. Men were taught to properly "assume their headship." No one mentioned mutual submission.

Thanks to God only, I managed to bridle my egali-vangelistic zeal. I did not corner any unsuspecting couples to prove to them with my borrowed knowledge of Hebrew grammar that the relationship between men and women was "designed" to be an egalitarian one. I resisted sneaking a box of egalitarian marriage guides on the book table. And I worshipped with these people.

You may remember that when I went to a conference held by the egalitarian body of opinion, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), several months ago, I wrote an online article addressing some misconceptions about CBE. It's time to do the same for CBMW.

Here are just a few things that surprised me about the CBMW complementarians:

They aim to liberate women. All this time I thought of egalitarian women as oppressed. But the die-hard complementarian ideologues sure didn't sound like it. At times I wondered if I was at a CBE, not CBMW, conference. "We want women to be free to do what God had called them to do," one speaker said. Another said, "We want men and women to be what God had called them to be." Hearing these words gave me a sensation of déjà vu. I heard the same words at the other conference!

One woman told me that complementarian theology is "very liberating." "I'm free to exercise my gifts," she said, adding, "within the context of God's order, of course. When I submit, such a burden is lifted. I want to be in charge, but when I am, it's confusion."

One speaker quoted Paul Vitz, who said that complementarian understanding of the Bible sets women free from the "debilitating anxiety to be both mother and father." Another speaker described wifely submission as "joyful, willing, creative, energetic" (it was a "he" though).

The similarity in language of complementarians and egalitarians reveals a lot about both groups' intentions. At least one of their goals is women's liberation. Their motivation is also the same—faithfulness to God's Word. Both groups ought to celebrate the love for the Scriptures that they have in common. The trouble is, they disagree on what it is that "the Bible says."

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They're not chauvinists. "Give undivided attention to what your wife is saying," said one speaker. "She has wisdom, much to communicate and contribute. So many times God gives ideas to women." Now, egalitarians like me may see this statement as patronizing. On the other hand, it can be argued that an "undivided attention" to one's spouse is a type of submission.

I don't know how many times I heard conference speakers exhort husbands to listen, really listen, to their wives, to "drop everything and ask her 'Honey, what's been on your mind lately?'" "Men, we must never communicate to our wives that they are second class citizens," said a speaker. A leader of a workshop on fathering said, "The way we men treat our wives is number one factor in the development of our sons and daughters."

They know the most important question—and their answer to it. I asked Randy Stinson, CBMW's executive director, if he believes there are happy, fulfilled, good egalitarian marriages out there. He tried hard, and finally told me, "I just think it's the wrong question. The question we ought to be asking is, 'Is it right?' I think more is at stake than personal happiness. We both cannot be right. I say that with a sense of brokenness." I had to agree with him.

People like me need to get it though our heads that complementarian passion about women's roles may be influenced by tradition, but it is mostly rooted in their interpretation of the Bible. They tell women to submit because it's what God wants (in their understanding), not because it's their fancy.

Having learned some lessons from complementarians and egalitarians, I now ready to write the article on the ways the two groups do marriage. I hope it will be pleasantly surprising to both you and me.

Agnieszka Tennant is assistant editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

Read Tennant's July article on the Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) conference.

The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood's Web site includes information on the organization and its beliefs.

The Web site for Christians for Biblical Equality also gives information about the organization and beliefs.

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Earlier Christianity Today articles on gender roles include:

The Next Christian Men's Movement | Just because Promise Keepers no longer fills stadiums doesn't mean men's ministry is dead. Far from it. (Sept. 15, 2000)

What Has Gender Got to Do with It? | Wesleyan-Holiness churches were led by women long before the rise of the modern women's movement. (Sept. 12, 2000)

A Woman's Place | Women reaching women is key to the future of missions. (Aug. 4, 2000)

Integrating Mars and Venus | Gender-based ministries may be effective, but are they biblical? (July 12, 1999)

Finding Power in Submission | Two feminist scholars write about women you'll recognize. (Apr. 27,1998)

Will Episcopalians Step into the 'Radical Center'? | Homosexual ordination discussed, women's ordination mandated. (Sept. 1, 1997)

Presbyterian Groups Sever CRC Ties | Women's ordination splits two denominations. (Aug. 11, 1997)