We believe the concept of authority is at the heart of much marriage misunderstanding and debate. Over the years traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage-view proponents have described their perceived authority to us in different ways.
Variations on a theme…
Some husbands have told us that as the leader they have a 51 percent role in making decisions and the wife has 49 percent. As we listen to these men explain their marriage, we can’t help but wonder, “How is a 51/49 functional authority any different from a husband who has 99 percent authority and a wife who has 1 percent?” Either way, the husband has final authority to make decisions.
Other husbands describe their authority as being the first among equals. Frankly, this interpretation of God’s design for marriage seems confusing to us. Our initial question to couples who live marriage this way is, what does first among equals mean? It seems to us that if a husband is first, that means his wife is second. The words first and second do not describe mutual equality and mutual authority—the co-leadership we believe God designed for marriage.
We’ve also heard husbands say somewhat tongue in cheek, “As the leader, I have authority to make all the major decisions in my marriage, but after decades of marriage, we’ve never had one major decision.” This position indicates to us that the husband is abdicating responsibility in his perceived authority role. Or the husband does not recognize his wife as having mutual authority.
In addition, there are those who try to establish a hierarchical authority structure of man over woman. They often use 1 Corinthians 11:3 to try to support their position. This is a text that is endlessly debated.
What did Paul and Peter really say about marriage?
One theologian notes that “the text in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is often cited as establishing a top-down hierarchy: God over Christ—Christ over man—man over woman. However, this biblical text must be radically dismembered and its components reshuffled to produce such results. The untouched biblical sequence is totally different, and it does not present a hierarchical structure: Christ, head of man—man, head of woman—God, head of Christ. The teaching in this text concerns the concept of “head” as the giver of life. In creation, Christ (as the Word, John 1:3) gave life to the man; man to woman (as she was taken from him, Gen. 2:21-23); and in the incarnation, God gave life to Christ (Luke 1:35). This understanding of “head” as “provider of life” is consistent with the immediate context, which deals with the significance of origination (1 Cor. 11:7-12).¹
Some traditionalists claim that the reference Peter makes to Sarah obeying Abraham establishes a God-ordained marital hierarchy (1 Peter 3:6). Remember, Peter wrote that statement fully aware that Abraham also obeyed Sarah multiple times. For example, God instructed Abraham in Genesis 21 that “whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her.” This admonition to wives comes after instructions on submission for ALL believers (1 Peter 2:11-25) and before a similar admonition to husbands in 1 Peter 3:7. (Read more on 1 Peter 3 here.)
In regard to authority in marriage, the only time authority between a husband and wife is specifically mentioned is in 1 Corinthians 7:4: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does, and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
The Bible clearly commands mutual authority to both the husband and wife. Philip Payne comments on this passage: “The strikingly egalitarian understanding of the dynamics of marital relations expressed in Paul’s symmetry throughout this passage is without parallel in the literature of the ancient world”.²
God’s Design is Mutuality
Couples can choose different marriage views that came after sin (male rulership, traditional-hierarchical-complementarian, and egalitarian) as well as various interpretations of equality, headship, submission, and authority. Our encouragement is for couples with teachable hearts and open minds to explore marriage texts and personal marriage views based on God’s original marriage design before sin. This includes mutual equality and mutual authority.
We love this quote by Thomas Merton:
‘A prophet isn’t someone who tells a slave he should be free, but someone who tells those who think they are free that they are slaves.’
Our experience is that male rulership and traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage proponents believe the husband has functional authority. And he can choose to exercise his perceived authority in the decision-making process. But stop and think about this: how much authority does a husband really have in a one-flesh lifelong marriage relationship? Bottom line, authority often leads to control, and control responds to control. Similarly, love responds to love, and love lasts forever (1 Corinthians 13).
Throughout the past three decades, we’ve counseled hundreds of couples, exploring authority, headship, and submission and reviewing the biblical commands for the husband—as head—to nourish, cherish, and be willing to die for his wife (Ephesians 5). Our real-life experience is that an authority model may work fine for some couples when things are going well. But when chaos surfaces and the going gets tough, or when couples reach a logjam, many husbands revert to the teaching of some religious leaders that headship includes a functional hierarchy with the husband over the wife. Traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage proponents often mistakenly interpret a handful of marriage texts and reach the conclusion that—unless something is immoral or illegal—a husband has authority to compel his wife to submit to him in the decision-making process.
As we’ve looked into the eyes of more wives than we can count, and reviewing Thomas Merton’s words, we wonder:
Might husbands who define headship in a way that includes male authority and the husband having the final say … might they unknowingly be slaves to the authority and control they think they have? Is it possible that many husbands are missing out on the power and protection—the kingdom-advancing potential—available in a marriage that includes co-leadership in mutual equality and mutual authority?
And might wives who define headship in ways that include male authority and the husband having the final say … might they unknowingly be slaves to the functional inequality and hierarchy in their marriage model? Is it possible many wives are missing out on the power and protection—the kingdom-advancing potential—available in a marriage that includes co-leadership in mutual equality and mutual authority?
After thirty-eight years of marriage, we try not to focus on who has authority, who’s in control, or who has the final say. Instead, we focus on what we believe is right. For us, rightness in marriage includes God’s original marriage design of mutual equality and mutual authority. We both passionately work at living out spirit-soul-body oneness. And our primary focus is not on headship-submission-authority, but on loving and serving God and each other—together—as co-leaders.
This post was adapted from chapter 9 of the book Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage, Other posts in this marriage series: Co-Leadership in Marriage: Let’s Talk about Submission and Co-Leadership in Marriage: What about Headship?.
¹Beyond Sex Roles. Gilbert Bilezikian.
²Man and Woman: One in Christ. Philip Payne.