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My Husband is Not My Spiritual Leader

June 5th, 2009.

Here is a little timeline of my attitude toward the concept of husbands as spiritual leaders:

Ten years ago:

“I just really want a man who can be my spiritual leader. And I hope he plays the guitar.”

 Eight years ago:

“I broke up with him because I just can’t see him as my spiritual leader.”

 Six years ago:

“I’m marrying him because he is a wonderful spiritual leader.”

Five years ago:

“This marriage will never work if you don’t step up as my spiritual leader!”

Four years ago:

“This is all your fault. You were supposed to be my spiritual leader.”

Three years ago:

“Forget it, let’s watch TV.”

Two years ago:

“Wait, maybe you’re not supposed to be my spiritual leader.”

Today:

“My husband is my best friend.”

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Five years ago or so, I was about to marry a man I thought would be my spiritual leader. He was a working youth pastor. We were on track to have the marriage I’d always heard praised in my Christian circles, and it all seemed so good.

But two weeks before we married, Joe was abruptly expunged from his church and everything turned upside down. Instead of marrying the perky, Youth Pastor Guy I signed up for, I got a brooding, scared and confused man. Did I mention he was unemployed?

He was not the spiritual leader I prayed for and pined after in my journals. This was a problem for me.

It shouldn’t have been, because I had been raised to be an independent, educated and strong woman in all other areas of  life. But bizarrely, the one exception was my spiritual life. I had this picture that my husband should be at the helm, holding my hand and leading me into the deep places of God. This is what I was taught to believe.

This expectation put our marriage through some difficult times. Joe didn’t bounce back right away from his severed church relationship like I thought he should. He wanted to leave the ministry entirely. He was angry and confused, but didn’t like to talk about it. Meanwhile, the Questions started coming at me, and I blamed him for my own spiritual unrest. After all, he was supposed to be my leader.

Then one day about two or three years into our marriage, in the middle of another why-aren’t-you-my-spiritual-leader argument, I heard just how whiny, weak and manipulative my own voice sounded.

“I’ve been saying this for years, and I don’t even know what it means,” I confided in him. “It was just something I’ve always heard.”

Our marriage got better after that day.

Joe did leave the ministry, and is now killing it in a totally unrelated field. He’s happy. He still doesn’t like to talk about spiritual things much, or suggest we pray together, or do those things that other Christian couples always talk about. But I’ve stopped pestering him about it. Joe is relieved and has been freed of his guilt for not living up to some mythical concept of what a spiritual leader looks like (see: Todd from the Christy Miller series).

Later, I put more thought into why I believe in egalitarian marriage, and I debunked the concept of the male spiritual authority in my life. But it wasn’t ideology that shaped my marriage. Rather, my marriage shaped my ideology. Complementarian ideals were getting in the way of an otherwise good union, so I finally gave up on them. I’m so glad I did.

And you know, now that I’ve let go of that narrow picture I clung to, I can see that in some ways, my husband is my spiritual leader. He leads me to God by way of working hard, listening, caring, laughing with me, and sacrificing his wants for the needs of our family. And I am his spiritual leader too. We are equals, both leading and serving and showing each other the face of the divine in our own small ways.

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12 Comments

  1. Callie Glorioso-Mays on May 28, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Carly, thank you so much for writing this! The “spiritual leader” concept was huge at our Christian college and I remember having conversations asking what that even meant. We, too, are in the process of figuring out an egalitarian marriage.

    • Carly Gelsinger on May 28, 2014 at 11:07 am

      It is a process, isn’t it? I honestly feel like God saved me from marrying the stereotypical “spiritual leader” I dreamed of in college.

      • Callie Glorioso-Mays on May 28, 2014 at 1:02 pm

        Yes! I agree!! I also feel like the “spiritual leader” concept leaves a very narrow version of manhood.

  2. AlissaBC on May 28, 2014 at 10:46 am

    O. my. gracious. The last four years of your timeline could have been mine. Thank you for writing about this so honestly. I couldn’t have said it better.

    • Carly Gelsinger on May 28, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Thanks! Even the part about watching TV? I felt that was a necessary step to include in the timeline. 😉

  3. Anna Wastell on May 28, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Oh, this is just perfect. Poor Todd Spencer, he doesn’t even know how many hearts he broke.

  4. lthompson513 on May 29, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    If I was one of those people that sounded really convincing and cool when they shouted, “You go, girl!” then I would be shouting that right now. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

    But, I am one of those girls that grew up with this same idea. After my first date with my now husband (at the Olive Garden–YES!) one of my college friends said something along the lines of “But it’s not like you’re going to marry him. He’s not a spiritual leader.”

    Thank goodness I evolved in my thinking, and thank goodness I married him. Or thank God rather.

    Really great post, Carly.

  5. Sori Rusu on June 15, 2014 at 11:01 am

    It is such a dissapointment to read this. Your theology is shaped by your experience Mrs. Gelsinger, instead of Scripture. Which is so sad.

    • Rosalyn on October 7, 2014 at 6:35 pm

      I know I am 4 months behind the times here, but I would love if you could expand on what you mean here, Sori. I think we would all like to hear a nice definition of “Spiritual Leader” from someone who seems to know what it means. 7 years of Christian marriage and being raised in the church by Christian parents has not left me with any clear answers.

  6. AlyGirl92 on June 26, 2014 at 9:52 am

    Carly,

    I just found your blog recently and I LOVE this! When I went through a season of dating I was getting to know this guy who seemed like a really strong Christian. At one point he asked me “what do you look for in a spiritual leader?” I’d heard that phrase before but I honestly had no idea how to answer the question.

    Since I wasn’t raised in a way where that concept was talked about or modeled, I’m still trying to figure out what that means, as well as how it fits into both my faith and my life. Growing up, I witnessed my parents’ marriage as dysfunctional and unbalanced; I love my father dearly, but he was not very good as a partner for my mom. He barely provided financially and only helped with the house/kids when she became angry enough about it. Seeing and being influenced by that, I do want a relationship/marriage where the guy is willing to take the initiative and take care of me (as well as the family we may have).

    That being said, I also know what it’s like to be in relationships where there’s a constant struggle for power and control. That’s why the idea of “spiritual leadership” in marriage makes me feel strange, if not frightened at times. I want my partner/husband and I to both be leaders for each other, where we both see each other as equals and both submit to Jesus. I respect that everyone does this differently, be it in a relationship or in a marriage. I’m grateful that I’m not alone in this (because for a while I thought I was).

    Thank you so much!

    Alyx

    • Carly Gelsinger on June 29, 2014 at 6:26 pm

      Great thoughts, Alex. I think you’re right, it has to be all about mutual submissions. Which I admit is hard for me sometimes. I love to be in control!

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