Male Headship and Mutual Submission in Marriage

wedding rings over words "created equal"4th in a series of posts on a dynamic vs. static view of Scripture. See Parts One,Two, and Three.

Nowhere is the difference between the static and the dynamic views of the Bible more evident than in the ongoing evangelical debate regarding roles in marriage.

The traditional view, called the Complementarian view, sees the roles as tied to gender and fixed in Scripture. In its most rigid form, the husband is the head of the household and the wife’s role, though important, is secondary and submissive. She is to submit to the husband’s leadership in all things.

Other forms of Complementarianism take a less rigid stance: that husband and wife are equal as persons in the sight of God but still have distinct roles within marriage that are defined by gender, ordained by God and embedded in Scripture.

Almost all Complementarians agree as to the husband’s role as head of the household; where they disagree with each other is on the role of the wife—how much leadership she is allowed to provide, and the extent of that leadership.

The dilemma for Complementarians appears to be that they are trying to say that husband and wife are equals, but the husband is more equal than the wife, and the disagreements center around how much more equal the husband is than the wife.

Almost all agree, however, that when push comes to shove and a couple cannot come to a meeting of the minds, it’s the husband’s job to make the final decision and the wife’s role to accept that decision.

Any way you slice it, the husband is the head and the wife’s role is complementary.

If you haven’t figured it out already, I am not a Complementarian, but I appreciate their position, and I appreciate that they are trying to be true to what the Bible says about marriage.

At issue isn’t their fidelity to Scripture, it’s their static view of Scripture that forces them to take a position that, in the final analysis, isn’t found anywhere in the Bible.

In the Old Testament there is a very strong patriarchialism reflected throughout. It isn’t taught so much as it’s just assumed. It underlies everything. The Torah regulated a man’s treatment of his wife (or wives!) but not a wife’s treatment of her husband. It is understood that a wife was under the husband’s control, but not the other way around.

The problem with a static view of Scripture is that these passages and their underlying assumptions are seen as every bit as authoritative as those verses that reject and undermine patriarchy. Let’s be clear: Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:21-33 do not modify patriarchy, they subvert it.

The call to wives in Ephesians to submit to their husbands is nothing new—in a patriarchal society it’s assumed; but the call to husbands to submit to their wives also (“Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ”) is a radical rejection of patriarchy and stands in opposition to those verses elsewhere which support patriarchy in all its forms.

Complementarianism is a modification and a softening of patriarchy but not a complete rejection of patriarchy. They can deny that this is true, and many do, but in no system in which the man in every instance has the final, ultimate say in what goes on in the marriage and the family can the wife be considered equal.

In those instances there is no mutual submission; only one person is submitting, and it is always the wife.

A dynamic view of Scripture sees that there is movement away from the patriarchy assumed in the Old Testament and reflected in the culture in which Jesus lived. It does not need to incorporate that strong patriarchy into Paul’s statement’s about husbands and wives, the result of which is some sort of compromise position that is actually nowhere reflected in Scripture.

A dynamic view recognizes what the early church recognized—that in Jesus old roles defined by power and authority are replaced by new roles defined by self-giving, mutually-submitting sacrificial love.

Jesus’s coming was revolutionary. He did not come to slightly modify anything. He came to replace coercive power with sacrificial love, and there is no in-between position.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / mylens

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7 Responsesto “Male Headship and Mutual Submission in Marriage”

  1. Chance Gamble says:

    Why did God create marriage? What is the institutions purpose?

    • Oneness. “The two shall become one flesh.” This is obviously not a physical statement, but refers to what happens when two people share life and intimacy together. It’s not unlike when the Bible says that David soul was “knit together” with Jonathan.

      I’ve also said that marriage is the main relationship that God uses to form us spiritually. It is where we learn to love unconditionally, where we have to learn to accept each other’s weaknesses and quirks, where we have to forgive to survive, where we have to show grace, and where we learn to receive each of those things in return. They don’t always come naturally; they are learned behaviors. With my kids they come naturally, but with my wife I have to work on them, not because of her, but because they are as yet unformed in me. As we’ve been married longer, we are much more forgiving and accepting of one another.

      • Chance Gamble says:

        But why does God want the two to become one?

        I agree. From everything I’ve heard, marriage and kids are incredibly sanctifying. That’s certainly a part of it. But marriage existed before the fall, before the need for sanctification, so the purpose of it must be even higher.

        • Just as God is relational in his very essence–three existing as one–since we reflect his image we ourselves are relational. As is indicated in the second creation story, a single human alone is incomplete, just as trying to understand God cannot omit 2 of the 3 persons. It’s not that we are flawed, or sinful, or fallen–though we are–and in need of the sanctification that marriage can bring–though that is certainly something that the Holy Spirit uses in our sanctification. It’s that we can’t experience our full humanness if we are isolated and alone. And if we can’t experience our full humanness, there is a sense that we can’t fully experience a three-in-one God.

          • Chance Gamble says:

            I agree. Marriage exists to reflect the image of God, specifically His relational dynamics of perfect harmony and selfless love.
            With that in mind, is there mutual submission in the Godhead? It says Jesus submits to the Father – does the Father equally submit to the Son? The Cross says not, since Jesus asks for the cup to pass and God still requires it of Him. God ‘made the decision’ so to speak.

            And what of God’s fondness for using marriage as the metaphor for His love of the Church? Does perfect egalitarianism exist in that marriage?

            I suppose you could say there is mutual submission in our relationship with God if you take free will as His submission to our choice, though it’s clear that not choosing His will is choosing our harm.
            I know functional complementarianism has its flaws, as many forget the death to self and sacrifice Paul asks of both man and wife. I think men are called to greater responsibility with that leadership, Paul’s example being Christs death for the church.
            But I’d like to know your answers to the questions I posed.

          • It may be that men are called to greater responsibility, but that’s not the same as greater authority. Responsibility for someone is different than authority over them, which is really what the complementarian/egalitarian discussion is about.

            To your questions: let’s first start by saying that all we can do when talking about God is use metaphors, and we have to be careful about pushing a metaphor beyond its limits, especially when talking about God. We have to be even more vigilant not to literalize a metaphor. The first person of the Trinity is not actually a father, nor the second a son. Those are terms we use to try to wrap our heads around a mystery that is ultimately beyond us. The reality is always greater than the metaphor.

            At the heart of love is mutual submission, so I guess you could say that there is mutual submission in the Trinity. Of course, Paul’s command to mutual submission actually subverts the concept of submission as well as the concept of authority. Authority indicates that you can make someone do something they don’t necessarily want to do, while submission means agreeing to do something you don’t want to do because someone in authority has told you to do it. “Mutual submission” means no one has the authority to make the other do something they don’t want to do, which means that there really isn’t any submission to a higher authority. Paul could have said “mutual authority” to the same effect. Take, for example, those churches that have co-pastors. The two pastors have equal authority, so in theory they never lead the church to do something unless there is full agreement between them that this is the direction they should go. There’s no authority over each other, therefore neither has to submit to the other. It may be that one says to the other, “You know what? You’ve studied this issue more than I have and have more experience than me in that area, so I’m going to go with your best recommendation,” but that is voluntary, and not based on anything fixed in either of them like gender or age, but expertise and experience. And that is how my wife and I try to be in our marriage. There are certain things she does better than me and has more knowledge of, and I’m happy to leave those things to here. She consults me and waits until I say, “Whatever you think is best, I’ll support” before acting. Likewise there are certain areas I have more expertise in, and she relies on my judgment, but we always try to consult each other first and make sure we are on the same page. She’d have a problem if I just said, “Look, you don’t know what you’re talking about in this area, so I just did it.” And vice versa. It’s about respect.

            As to the Garden of Gethsemane, I think it’s a mistake to take this as an issue of the Father issuing an order and the Son, somewhat reluctantly, having to submit to it. It’s more like Jesus saying, “Is this really the only way?” and the Father saying, “Yes, it’s the only way.” They have agreement to the ends to which they are striving, and Jesus is confirming that there really is only one way to get there. The Father isn’t arbitrarily saying, “This is what you have to do because I said so.” He’s saying, “This is the only way to do it.” It’s as if Jesus needs to get a certain place, and the only road to get there is through a vast desert. “Isn’t there another road?” “Sorry, I wish there was, but there’s just this one.”

            As to your question about the marriage metaphor between Christ and the Church: on this one I think you may be pushing the metaphor to its limits, but let’s roll with it. Christ is head of the church–but I think the clear evidence of church history is that he doesn’t force the church to do his will as one with authority. The church has gone off on its own in a multitude of ways and clearly God doesn’t stand in the way. Submission to Christ’s headship means that we recognize that he is God and we aren’t, and –this is crucial–we trust that he always has our best interests at heart; that, in fact, because he is God that he knows what is in our best interests better than we do ourselves. So we find that doing what he says always works together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes. (See what I did there?) He doesn’t make us do it, and we don’t do it because he makes us do it. We do it because we know he loves us, and we love and trust him.

            But this is a subversion of the world’s idea of authority, as Jesus said in Luke 22:25-26. Instead of authority defined as “who is the boss?” it’s authority as in “who has the expertise to make the best decision here?”

            In a patriarchal society, both decisions are based on position and gender. Kings–who were always men–make the decisions. Husbands–who are always men–make the decisions. In a patriarchal society, even expertise is an issue of gender, because it was only the men who were allowed to study and learn and gain experience, so of course they have all the expertise. In my view, complementarianism tries to soften what they Bible actually subverts. It’s still a form of patriarchialism in which a very worldly form of authority is reserved to people based solely on position and gender, and that is exactly what the Bible is trying to get away from.

  2. Chance Gamble says:

    I’ve been thinking about your response. I find it confusing that mutual submission can be at the heart of love, yet it has been so subverted that it means nothing – the equivalent of mutual authority or equal/no authority.

    I also disagree with your definitions, in that I submit to the Lord whatever my will may be because I trust Him. It doesn’t have anything to do with positive or negative connotations.

    And I’ve never been married, but I have done a lot of ballroom dancing. Interestingly enough, the guy is always expected to lead, whether or not he has more expertise.
    Looking back, across all the partners and skill levels I’ve had, no girl ever asked me to exercise less authority, to use a weaker lead.
    Because the point of leading in ballroom is to make much of the girl, to show her off and make her look good. It’s never about the leader.
    That’s how I think of marriage and complementarianism: a dance where the man leads to bless and serve the woman in every way he can. And the woman follows because it’s what’s ultimately best for her, and that’s how all dances are designed. I didn’t make it up – that’s the inherent build of dance, like it’s been put there by Someone… 😉

    Thank you for your response. At the least, we can agree that such things aren’t so simple as they may seem.

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