Pursue Complementarity, Not Compatibility


Written by: Owen Strachan

Compatibility.

Has any concept done more to hinder the development of love? We hear that once we discover our perfect physical and emotional match, we’ll taste ceaseless fulfillment, experience sizzling romance, and meet one another’s deepest needs. A world of bliss.

Compatibility.

Actually, this approach is fraught with pressure and flawed from the start. Tim and Kathy Keller said it well in The Meaning of Marriage: “Physical attractiveness will wane, no matter how hard you work to delay its departure. And socioeconomic status unfortunately can change almost overnight.” In such relationships, cracks will show, and soon the “compatibility foundation” falls apart. So people rip up their marriages and start over again, believing they married a person they weren’t compatible with.

How tragic! The real issue before every couple is this: none of us is compatible. We’re sinners. That’s why we need something much better and sturdier as the ground of our marriages.

We need complementarity, not compatibility.

Complementary Love

We’re all confused today. Our sexualized culture has lost a script for love, leaving only consent and an eCard in its wake. In such a vacuum, compatibility seems promising as an organizing principle for wedded union. The biblical perspective, however, says the taproot of a happy, healthy marriage is gospel-shaped manhood and womanhood. Life in marriage simply doesn’t make sense without this vision.

Scripture shows us God creates the woman for the man after forming him from the ground (Gen. 2:7, 18). Eve is made from Adam’s own body, indicating both his call to protect her and a connectedness that transcends biology (Gen. 2:21–22). She’s his “helper,” and he’s to “hold fast” to her, which means he’s to lead in love and never let her go (Gen. 2:18,24). Paul fills out this picture in Ephesians 5:22–33, the Bible’s preeminent passage on what marriage is and should be. By grace, a husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church. By grace, a wife is to submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ.

Beyond Ephesians 5, Scripture demonstrates that the wife seeks to cultivate what Peter calls a “gentle and quiet spirit” while the husband lives with her in an understanding, self-sacrificial, tender way (1 Pet. 3:4, 7). If God wills, they raise children. They work together to build a happy home in Christ, and he spiritually leads his family, managing it well (1 Tim. 3:4).

Of course, the couple shares much in their marriage. They must extend forgiveness, stir one another to godliness, and mourn together when loved ones die. In these and other ways, they care for each other as every believer should. But their marriage is no gender-neutral laboratory. He’s a man; she’s a woman. As Gavin Peacock and I share in our new book, The Grand Design, God has given us a script for sex and love, one that’s true and good. We don’t know everything about the shape our lives are to take if we marry, but we know a lot.

No One Is Compatible 

As stated above, no one’s compatible. Why? Because both spouses are sinners, and sin shreds even the most promising union. Compatibility might exist on paper, but as soon as two sinners start living together, it won’t in practice. Your average Hollywood couple looks so happy on paper—everything seems to match up. It’s a fairy tale! But then tensions creep in. Booming bank accounts and sexual attraction are great, but they won’t solve even the smallest issues that develop when two fallen humans unite in matrimony. Not even close.

Sexual differences matter, too. Modes of problem-solving, emotional expression, intuitional differences—all these and more often play into the strange alchemy that is the man-woman pairing. Though we all face challenges, there’s glory in the Spirit-empowered outworking of a complementary marriage. When the man feels like pulling away, he must remember it’s God’s will for him to cling to his wife. Headship in Scripture means leadership, and one of the most crucial aspects of godly leadership is repentance grounded in humility. Instead of sulking, he fights for his marriage, confesses his sin, and leads in reconciliation.

How unlike the world’s conception of manhood this is.

When the woman feels like lashing out or undermining her husband, she recalls that she puts the gospel on display when she chooses instead to honor him. Being a wife in Scripture means living—in big and small ways—for him, and ultimately for Christ. This is a glorious role, not a cursed one (see 1 Cor. 11:9). His leadership isn’t perfect, but she welcomes it. She strives to live out the family vision, and to bless her home and kids. Her work is vital. The helper, after all, fills a role the leader cannot.

How unlike the world’s conception of womanhood this is.

Where It’s All Headed 

Such God-honoring complementarity best explains the beauty of a wedding. The bride walks down the aisle, and the man blinks back tears at God’s grace to him. It’s Genesis 2 all over again. But now the couple needs Ephesians 5—lived out by divine aid—to be truly happy. And beyond this, they and every member of Christ’s church need Revelation 21. Whether single or married, we’re all called to live as a man or a woman for God’s glory. Weddings are terrific, but they speak of a greater consummation—when all the bride of Christ comes home.

We must remember the future in tough moments: when the baby wakes up for the third time at night; when communication breaks down; when opinions strongly differ. We need a strong, self-sacrificial Jesus and his loving, submissive bride emblazoned on our minds. This is what we’re working toward, day after day, until we’re old and gray and the anniversary cake holds decades worth of candles.

Compatibility is great if you can get it, as Matt Chandler has said well. Good communication, specific care for one another, trying activities your spouse enjoys—such practices will help couples bond. We pray to grow together, not to grow apart, over the years. But ultimately, it’s not compatibility that will sustain and strengthen our marriages. It’s complementarity—anchored in Scripture, displayed most happily in Spirit-powered marriages, and fulfilled in the love of Christ and his bride.