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Male Headship vs. Mutual Submission in Marriage

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; 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 5 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 that 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 statements 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’ 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.

Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.