marriage conflict resolution submission man woman egalitarian complemetarian

Submission in Marriage is Not Just for Conflict Resolution

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.

Lifelong Submission

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.

Christ-like Submission

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.

Author: Daniel and Rebekah Slonim

Daniel Slonim is pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics at Purdue University. He studied math and philosophy at Hillsdale College. His interests include metaphysics, theology, natural law, and politics. At Hillsdale he met his beautiful wife Rebekah, with whom he enjoys talking about the aforementioned subjects, memorizing poetry, and discussing the fine points of grammar. His favorite hobby is finding unsuspecting victims and talking to them about math for as long as he can keep them in the room (and conscious).

4 Replies to “Submission in Marriage is Not Just for Conflict Resolution

  1. Do you honestly think you successfully responded to the “Intractable Disagreement” argument? Quoting a single person as stating they never had a “intractable disagreement” only refutes the claim that some people never have intractable disagreements, not that egalitarianism can’t deal with intractable disagreements. Some couples are legitimately more compatible with one another. This isn’t a useful paradigm for a legitimate issue facing many marriages.

    If the case of RHE, you, or anyone else, when a significant marital disagreement arises, someone wins because there’s no such thing as democratic vote between two people. Either Rachel or her husband submitted to / obeyed / acquiesced to / followed / the other in that instance. Egalitarians like to gloss over this reality with their talk about “mutual submission”, but in the case of whether to buy a car, or paint the house red, or allow little Bobby to go to the middle school dance, either it happens or it doesn’t.

    This concept of someone or some specific group having the final say is how it works in every other institutions — government, business, military, clubs, other organizations, etc — but, strangely, when it comes to church and family, the two places where God’s word should have the most significant bearing on our life, this vague concept of mutual submission becomes the rule of law, according to egalitarians.

    If Eph. 5:21 precludes hierarchy, then the Bible contradicts itself. So don’t ask me what Eph. 5:21 means. YOU tell me why wives are told to obey their husbands, children told to obey their parents, and slaves told to obey their masters if hierarchy is unbiblical.

    1. This article was well written and thoughtful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Daniel and Rebekah.

      Keith makes several valid points especially in the field of practical everyday disagreements in decisions that need to be made regularly, and at times fairly quickly. Who tips the scale when Mom says little Jimmy can eat half of his candy bar right now, but Dad says (and has always said) no candy before supper?

      In which case do all three people resemble Christ?

      In a situation where Dad decides that the family needs to move, but does not confide in his wife or seek her advice. Is that loving?

      – – – – – – –

      In healthy relationships disagreements need to be made. For example, Dad is misinformed and is going to take a road that has been closed due to flooding, in order to deliver emergency supplies. Mom (having read the newspaper) explains that the road has been closed, and that he needs to take a longer alternate route. (This is a wife acting as a help-mate and voicing an authoritative source beyond herself).
      If the wife pulls her husband out of the driver’s seat and insists that SHE be the one to get them on the right track (literally or proverbially) she is acting against her God-given role and centering herself in the place of authority, rather than the news report.

      What we see often in these modern times is women “taking charge” because of a lack of faith in their spouse, in men in general, and in their God. Which is paralleled in the ridiculousness of churches trying to “take charge” because they believe God is slow to act … or acting wrongly.
      Likewise we find few men, who have been brought up to lead (by submitting to Christ). So they shrink back, and allow the damage to be done, or worse assume a totalitarian attitude– assuming Godhood (which is very UN-Christ).

      Both of these are due to a lack of faith. Faith is believing that God can do things when we cannot, and participating in His good and perfect will.

      Plenty to pray about.

  2. I clicked on this to find out just how crazy you were. Something about this subject seems to bring out the crazies.

    I was surprised and refreshed. Thank you for this excellent perspective.

  3. This was really beautiful, and one of the best interpretations of the current debate I’ve read yet.

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