When does male headship and female submission begin? Here I ask a critical question of complementarians. This is not a gotcha question. There is nothing frivolous in my asking. It is serious because it relates to little girls, preteens, teens and to young women who are courting or engaged.
We have just come off the Olympics, a spectacle that has repeatedly reminded us of the strength and confidence and equality of young women. But, I ask complementarians, are they actually fully equal to their male counterparts? Not equal in essence or spiritually or in some other indefinable way but fully equal? Are they equal in decision-making, equal in planning their futures, equal in standing up to a playmate, a boyfriend, a fiancé, a husband?
An interesting observation on this issue comes from Kathy Keller in The Meaning of Marriage. She reflects on the sudden change that came with marriage. “Up until then, we had pretty much lived in a unisex world, as [seminary] students taking the same classes, competing for grades on a level playing field, rarely forced into any consideration of what God’s intention may have been in making us male and female.” I believe what she means by “unisex” is that they lived in a world of gender equality. She was “on a level playing field.” Then very suddenly she entered an unequal situation of marriage.
That was my own experience as well. As a college student in the 1960s, it never occurred to me that I didn’t enjoy full equality with my male counterparts. But then during my first year of graduate work I became engaged and months later married. The shift from full equality to inequality—to the expectation of submitting to the headship of my husband—did not go smoothly. At that time we both believed that submission was a one-way street and that headship belonged to the husband. I was a traditionalist and did not question the biblical basis for such. But I also knew that I was the same strong, confident—and fully equal—person I had been before I had said I do.In my situation the headship became violent, as I tell in Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife. During the nearly twenty years we were married I was beaten and violated and threatened too many times to even recount. It was my fault, my husband insisted, because I had provoked him; I had failed to submit.
I certainly do not assume that male headship marriages are by their very nature physically abusive, nor that there are no physically abusive egalitarian marriages. The assertion I am making here is that a woman entering an egalitarian marriage does not exchange equality for inequality. She shares equally in decision-making. But it can be very unsettling for a woman who has enjoyed full equality with her male counterparts and is then suddenly thrust into a marriage of male headship.
Do complementarians offer preparation for this? Are young girls encouraged to see themselves as less than fully equal with the boys in their classrooms or on the bus? Is a young woman who is engaged to be married fully equal with her fiancé?
If the complementarian concept of headship and submission is taught in church youth groups or from the pulpit, it is not a stretch for young adults to imagine that such a male/female divide is beginning to apply to them. And does that make a young woman vulnerable? Is she more likely to agree, for example, for his desire to ratchet up the relationship? Is she more likely to be pushed sexually where she does not want to go?
In today’s world the best we can do for our daughters is to empower them with a strong commitment to full equality. Male and female, created He them, whether an Olympian, a budding scientist or the one who aces the exam in systematic theology. How then do complementarians prepare these bright energetic fully-equal females to slide right into a less than equal role the moment they say I do?
 Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Dutton, 2011), 171.