Jesus teaches the foundation of Christianity is for all believers to “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Later, Paul expounds that love includes mutual submission: “Submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21) before he breaks it down into wives submit, husbands love—NOT wives submit, husbands lead. Nowhere in the Bible does it explicitly state, “Husbands lead, wives submit.” When the church twists the Christian message of mutual love and submission into “lead and submit,” LOVE is lost.
In a recent social media post, my husband captured the corruptive nature of complementarian theology (male leadership/female submission) in marriage no matter how well-intentioned the couple. Thought I’d share.
My wife and I were “healthy” complementarians for a long time, and worked to make decisions mutually, but it’s pretty insidious how the mindset of “Godly women submit” seeps into everything. For a woman, you can’t truly have a voice when you’re taught theologically that your voice is not as valuable.
As men, it’s very difficult for us to understand just how deeply women internalize the message to “submit”, even in the “most healthy” of complementarian settings. That’s why it’s so important to listen to and learn from women’s voices and perspectives on this topic.
Women are getting the message “men lead, women submit” taught to them early on – from church (even subconsciously, through leadership structure), books, media, etc. and by the time you get to marriage (and during), it’s very much internalized, even part of their identity.
Even with a loving husband who wants to love and listen to his wife, when a disagreement occurs, the wife feels the weight of her entire complementarian theology and church upbringing, taught to her from childhood, pressuring her to agree with her husband – all out of a desire to honor God. How could she not agree? What kind of wife would she be then?
If submission is the goal, it’s difficult for the wife to discern when to disagree. When she does convince her husband to her way of thinking, there’s guilt that perhaps she didn’t honor God, that perhaps she should have just “submitted”. This is what happens when “wives submit” (Eph 5:22) has been emphasized all throughout her life, at the expense of “submit to one another” (Eph 5:21).
Complementarianism isn’t healthy for men either. We’ve always been in that position of power, with the belief that our voice is more important, more valuable, more entitled to be heard, so when we (men) decide to “listen” to our wives, we view it as “sacrifice” – look how loving we are, sacrificing for our wives! How godly! Power and entitlement twists our “love” into pride.
How can we have a truly healthy marriage? Wouldn’t God want us to have a healthy marriage? In complementarian settings, we are so quick and eager to emphasize “wives submit to husbands” (Eph 5:22), that we skip over the verse that precedes it: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21) Suddenly, it’s clear. Both husband and wife are to submit to each other – mutually.
Notice how different translations of the Bible have section breaks at different places, and how this can be used to skew the meaning of the text. This is actually an interpretation of the text! The original text did not contain any chapter or section headings. Even worse, in the original text, the verb “submit” is not found in verse 22, but is “carried over” or “implied” from verse 21 – which ties the exhortation for wives to submit to husbands to the instruction for us to submit to “one another”. The most accurate rendering of the text may simply be without the section break at all, allowing Paul’s thoughts to flow through the letter of Ephesians as he originally intended.
Only with mutual submission (Eph 5:21) can a husband truly love (and submit to) his wife, laying down his power as Christ did for the church. Only with mutual submission can a wife express her voice with confidence that her husband values her, and that she equally is made in God’s Image.
Only in the context of mutual submission can a husband and wife, in marriage, truly be “one flesh” and “united” (Eph 5:31) – working through differences and disagreements with love and mutual submission, agreeing on a path for their marriage together.
But how does that work? What does mutual submission look like, practically?
What if we just can’t come to an agreement? Who gets to break the tie? Sheila Gregoire was one of the first to tackle “tie-breaking”, and her thoughts and article really helped my wife and I understand why “tie-breaking” doesn’t work.
“Tie-breaking” in marriage deceptively sounds good, because we’re familiar with other forms of tie-breaking – in sports, games, government, etc. However, in marriage, this idea of “tie-breaking” is actually harmful, not helpful, particularly when we say the husband always breaks the tie.
When we make an appeal to “needing a tie-breaker”, we’re taking a familiar, legitimate concept and mis-applying it. Think about tie-breaking in other contexts. What is it truly about? It’s about determining a winner (and therefore, a loser). In government, it’s about power. Having a power/winner/loser dynamic in marriage is certainly not “united” and “one flesh”, as God intended (Eph 5:31).
Additionally, real tie-breakers depend on an extra factor: an extra round, an extra vote, an extra criteria to consider. This isn’t the case when we say the man should always be the “tie-breaking” vote. This is really saying the man always wins, which is just permanent power for the man.
Think about it: in a marriage where the husband gets the “tie-breaking” vote, when does the wife’s voice actually matter? The husband has the choice to “lovingly sacrifice” and defer to his wife, but the wife doesn’t even get a choice of whether or not to defer to the husband, as either way, the husband gets his way through his “tie-breaking” vote.
Even the word “tie-breaking” should give us pause in marriage. It’s about breaking – not unifying. This is the opposite of “mutual submission” (Eph 5:21). Deferring to your spouse should always be a willing choice made in love – not an expectation to be demanded or forced.
So what does mutual submission look like practically? I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. Every marriage is unique. Sometimes, a spouse may defer to the one with more expertise in an area, or to the one that would be most impacted. Other times, a season of prayer and dialogue may be needed to arrive at a decision.
If both agreed to it, even flipping a coin would actually be better than having the man always be the tie-breaker! With mutual agreement to defer to a factor not inherent to either spouse, it’s no longer about power and winning. Always in the end, both spouses should be in united and agree on the decision, moving forward in unison as “one flesh”. Talk, pray, debate, even argue – but in the end, don’t move forward without both spouses in unity. Don’t break the tie – be one in marriage as God intended.
Title image is American Gothic, by Grant Wood
When Adam and Eve chose the rule of humankind over the rule of God, they tragically ushered in the Age of Patriarchy. Jesus came to set us free. I explore the significance of the man’s desire in Song of Songs 7:10 echoing the woman’s desire in Genesis 3:16 in
Age of Patriarchy: Desire of Woman & Rule of Man
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