What exactly should biblical submission and headship look like in marriage? In the twenty-first century, Christians disagree on how to interpret the key Bible passages because traditional gender roles are no longer a given. After five and a half months of marriage, we have yet to find the definitive answer to this question, and we doubt that fifty years of marriage will fully answer all our questions! For now, we propose that Christian couples should approach submission and self-sacrifice as a way of life, rather than solely as a method of conflict resolution.
Christian positions on Biblical marriage divide roughly into two camps. “Complementarians” believe that God has assigned husbands and wives different roles in marriage. These roles work together to glorify God and strengthen the marriage. On the whole, complementarians support more traditional interpretations of the wife’s role within a marriage, based on strict readings of the passages that instruct wives to submit to their husbands. Meanwhile, “egalitarian” Christians view these “separate but equal” roles with suspicion. While still asserting the importance of Scripture, they look for new ways to interpret passages about submission.
The Intractable Disagreement Fallacy
Unfortunately, both complementarians and egalitarians tend to view a wife’s “submission” as a method of conflict resolution. Many articles frame the discussion with the “intractable disagreement problem”: If husband and wife cannot agree, the husband gets the deciding vote. Egalitarians often argue that such submission to the husband’s will is unnecessary and wrong.
As egalitarian blogger Rachel Held Evans writes:
Contrary to everything you’ve heard from the complementarian camp, in nearly 13 years of egalitarian marriage [my husband and I have] never reached that big, bad hypothetical impasse in which we simply cannot agree and need someone to play a gender-based trump card to prevent paralysis. It just hasn’t happened.
Mrs. Evans has a point. If biblical submission is primarily a way to solve intractable disagreements, then it is unnecessary most of the time. If it is only a way to solve disagreements, it degrades women by forcing them to “lose out” every time there is conflict.
Submission should characterize a marriage relationship at all times, not function as a power structure to fix a relationship in difficult moments. In the famous passage on marriage in Ephesians 5, Paul doesn’t talk about what to do in case of a disagreement. He simply says, “Wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Moreover, the submissive wife and sacrificial husband allow marriage to reflect Christ and the Church. If submission only occurs in the case of intractable disagreements, there is no parallel during times of concord.
In the same Bible passage that commands wives to submit, Paul instructs husbands to lay down their lives for their wives. The sacrificial commandment is just as important in defining Christian marriage as the submission commandment. We should interpret each commandment in the context of the other, but the intractable disagreement framework treats the wife’s submission separately.
Even when taking both commandments into account, the intractable disagreement approach fails on a practical level. If the husband’s will prevails in every disagreement, more and more disagreements may become “intractable.” The unhappy wife will find it is her duty to shut up and let the husband rule over her. On the other hand, if self-sacrifice is an everyday responsibility, but submission occurs only as a last resort, the husband may resent his lopsided burden.
One might object that submission is meaningless without conflict. How can a person submit his will to another when they are both in agreement?
Scripture tells us that God the Son is “subject” to the God the Father, and yet both are fully divine, fully equal in glory. Most importantly, Father and Son are fully unified in every respect. (Incidentally, the exact sense in which the Son is “subject” to the Father is a hot issue in Christian blogging universe right now. We make no attempt to address that here.)
Scripture does not, however, describe disagreements where the Son says, “I really think X is best, but the Father says to do Y, so I’ll submit.” The closest Scriptural analogue to this is Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ prays for relief in His state of humiliation, however. He is submitting to the Father as a figurehead for the human race, and not only as the Son. His submission to the Father continues in some way long after His resurrection and glorification, when such tension between His will and the Father’s will is entirely absent.
The eternal relationship between the Father and the Son is mysterious and certainly not the primary model for a husband and wife. Nonetheless, the Son’s eternal submission to the Father shows that submission and authority can exist even in a situation of perfect harmony, where discord is impossible.
We should recognize that God intends submission and self-sacrifice to characterize the life of every Christian. Then we can begin to grapple with the “mystery” of the commandments in Ephesians 5. Unlike the perversion of authority prophesied in Genesis 3 where the husband “rules over” the wife in an antagonistic relationship, Ephesians 5 describes a beautiful relationship. Authority means surrendering one’s life for another and submission means lovingly accepting that gift, both on a daily basis.