One of the most challenging issues in the church is this idea that marriage involves a husband having authority OVER his wife. I can’t tell you how many marriages have been harmed by this teaching and how often a marriage is reduced by teachings such as this. Marriage is not a business or a corporation in which one person is leader over the other and decides what is best for another person. Marriage is about two human beings being in an intimate relationship with one another within which each one is honored and respected. It is in the family that we and our children learn how to live justly in community. That is why mutual submission is so important.
This idea of husbands being in authority over a wife comes from the patriarchal ideals common in the first century when women were given to further the honor or wealth of a given family. She was more of a traded commodity than a person. In the first century women were considered less human, imperfect or less formed males, and inferior beings with less rational abilities. They were also considered more easily deceived and childlike, therefore in need of a ruler.
This might make for a peaceful home for the head of the household in the first century but severely dehumanized the wife. Relationships were often utilitarian instead of relational. This is why I believe Paul turned the household codes of the first century on its head by asking men and women to submit to one another and love like Christ.
Many are curious about what it means for a husband and wife to mutually submit and co-lead in marriage. Often I notice wonderment from fellow believers about how my husband and I work out our disagreements. If the husband is not the final-say-decision-maker, then how do we deal with conflict that goes unresolved? And what about submission? Does a wife submit in a co-leading situation? Does a husband submit? Does co-leading mean a wife is unwilling to respect her husband and does it mean that she will usurp his role spiritually?
In our marriage, my husband and I do come to impasses around certain decisions. We talk about what we need from one another in a given disagreement. Sometimes it might mean that we take into account one another’s feelings or values or needs as we consider a decision. At other times, it means that we may defer or submit if it is an area where there are not strong feelings or preferences. Such as, if we are deciding where we should go to dinner and one of us really cares and the other does not… one will defer. We might also defer when one person has a greater insight or knowledge around a purchase or has expertise or insight into a situation. For example, I often happily defer to my husband’s knowledge of cars or construction matters. There are times when he defers to me around home design or about other matters about which I have greater expertise. Sometimes we each contribute our expertise or insight around a particular decision which makes our decision stronger and better.
When decisions deeply affect both of us, different decision-making strategies are required. We can wait until we come into agreement. This might mean a process of mutual, prayerful discernment. This might also mean that we consider the timing or that we consider how something might impact one another emotionally or physically. If we can make accommodations so that the other’s needs are met and can come to agreement, then we move forward with the decision. If not, we wait and pray together or apart until we receive more information. At no time would one of us use this as a means to over-ride the heart or will of the other. Sometimes one of us defers or submits because it is a good decision for the family and our values around family and children are in alignment.
Submission in scripture is spoken of as mutual. Husbands and wives and people are asked to submit to one another. Our way of co-leading and mutuality is loaded with submission. At no time do we allow selfishness to override our spouse for that would indeed be an act of violence to the spirit of the other. We don’t use a Biblical authority trump card to get our own way. These acts would stir resentments and disunity and damage the relationship. Over time if one person is asked to submit all of the time, their personhood is diminished and a great number of feelings emerge such as sadness, depression, resentment or anger. They are signals that something has gone wrong in the relationship that is in need of repair.
I don’t believe Biblical headship is about overriding the other person in any way, shape or form. I believe the Bible is addressing the household codes common in the first century and that the writers are not commanding those household codes for the 21st century but applying the gospel of Jesus Christ to an existing household structure common in the first century. God is calling his people to love one another in their most intimate relationships in the way that Jesus loved the church. It is a self-giving love that sees the other as valuable and worthy of respect and consideration.
When the Bible says submit to one another, it means literally, “to place oneself under the other.” Ironically, we do this when we listen to our spouse, or when we seek to hear their view or perspective. In hearing, and in listening we lower ourselves to attend to the humanity of the other. It is because they are valuable and important and worthy of honor. This is living in the way of Jesus.
I believe that we have reduced submission to a ruler/authority/command/obedience definition. This is not the Biblical understanding of submission. It does not mirror Jesus nor the way of Jesus. Submission is always about self-giving love that seeks the good of the other. And submission goes both ways in a God-honoring marital relationship.
Submission is always about relationship and attending to the personhood and need of the other which is what both husbands and wives are called to do as God’s image bearers.
Finally, does mutual submission and co-leading mean that I will disrespect my husband’s spirituality? Again, the answer is no as this is another myth that circles the church frequently. We are each responsible for our own relationship with God and for tending that relationship. Because we are each one filled with the Spirit, we are each one capable of hearing and growing and moving toward truth. Both men and women as fallen human beings are capable of deception. Often in marriage, gentle truth-telling is vital for relational growth and the maturity of each person. Co-leading means we will honor how we are each hearing God and seek to find guidance together as we place ourselves under one another to listen, to seek understanding and find meaning from what we each hear from God.
Ephesians 5:21, says, “And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Living in the way of Jesus is not about being above another or overriding the heart of the other… It’s about loving well in a marriage that seeks to reflect the person and actions of Christ.