Living a godly marriage is a challenge. It's always a challenge to obey Christ, it fights against our human nature and strains the chords of our desires. Biblical marital authority is a challenge for us all. It's difficult to navigate leadership and submission.
There is a common divide in the approaches people take to the marital authority structure. Two camps emerge from the conversation: Egalitarian and Complimentarian. When properly understood, we see that there are a lot of similarities between them; but we will note that there are some very different practices done by both. If our desire is to please God we must weigh heavily what the Scriptures ask of us and strive to live it out. With that as our aim, we will examine what these two views say, their biblical support, and what God is calling us to in marriage so that we can eagerly and humbly obey God in the most important earthly relationship we have - our marriages.
Egalitarians believe that men and women are created equal in all realms. There is no distinction between male and female (Gal. 3:28). It is therefore both the spouse's jobs to submit to Christ, because He is the head of the marriage, just as He is the head of the church. Any notion that the man is the head of the marriage is strictly a result of the fall, and God's intended role for man. When Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Peter 3:1 talk about a woman submitting they believe it means that the man was the source of the woman in the garden of Eden and is not actually a call for the man to lead the marriage (Gen. 2:21-22). As such, there is no need to hold to it today as believers are enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
Egalitarians are 100% right that men and women are created equal spiritually and intellectually. In general though, women are weaker physically and are superior in areas of compassion, emotional understanding and expression. And only women can get pregnant and give birth. To say we are equal in all realms doesn’t do justice to the fact that God made us both, male and female. He could have made us procreate by mitosis, and truly the same in every way, but in His wisdom he made us different and unique, but still equal heirs to His kingdom.
The difficulty of this belief is what to do when there’s a disagreement between you and your beloved spouse. It may be that most of the time you are able to move past it by talking through it, but every honest relationship eventually has a disagreement the two sides cannot get past. That’s not to say they don’t love each other or don’t respect each other anymore, but simply that they cannot come to an agreement. Consider schooling for your child, if your spouse firmly believed that boarding school was the only legitimate option, what would you do? Most people in America would have a hard time with that stance. So how do you resolve it? Egalitarians would argue for more conversation and more mutual submission between both parties - and that’s certainly an option, but we all have known stubborn people and have been stubborn ourselves at times and know this will not always work.
Egalitarianism strives to combat some negative things they've seen happen in oppressive marriages. We’ve seen over the centuries that many sinful men twist the definition of Complementarianism from being about love and honoring God, and instead make it only about submission (which just becomes subjugation). The Egalatarian’s goals are noble in trying to avoid this potential trap. Unfortunately, they've used bad hermeneutics to accomplish their goal, misreading Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 in an attempt to support their position. The result of this leads many believers down a wrong and unbiblical path.
Complementarians believe that men and women are equal in value, worth, inheritance in Christ, and are equal image bearers of God. However, men and women are different in regards to the roles they play in marriage. Husbands are to display the image of Christ to their wives and to those that are looking from the outside in on the marriage (Ephesians 5:25). Jesus gave himself up for the church and the husband is to sacrifice his own wants and desires and even his own life to be an aide to his wife, helping purify her in her walk with God.
In complementarianism, husbands are called to learn about and honor their spouse (1 Peter 3:7), lead (Ephesians 5:23), and love their wife (5:25-33). Wives are called to help (Genesis 1:26-31, 2:18-25), honor (1 Peter 3:1), and humbly submit (Ephesisans 5:22) to their husbands. The way this plays out will be different in every marriage, and each married couple will have different roles within their marriages in relation to abilities, training, and calling. Each of these calls is given directly to those spousal roles of husband or wife, but at the same time all of those calls are universal in nature. For example, Believers have the universal call to lead in different places and times in life (Titus 2:3-5), and to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).
Obedience to the call of complementarianism will spark conversations with your unbelieving friends. Wives, they will ask you why you’re obeying when you know he’s wrong - expecting you to say that you plan on rubbing his face in it. But when you say that you submit because that’s what Christ did at the Cross, you’ll stop them speechless and have a perfect opportunity to share with them the undeniable truth of the Gospel of Christ.
Men, your friends will ask you why you’re serving your spouse and doing household chores when you should be leaving the women’s work to your wife. They’ll tease and jab at you, but when you say that you do it because Jesus dirtied his hands washing your feet and gave you life by taking the nails meant for your hands and feet, their mouths will drop open and they’ll begin to reconsider what they know about God and you. Or maybe they’re make fun of you even more, but you can rest assured that you did not fail to love your Lord and point them to Him.
These examples point at the commonly expected gender roles, but it may be that your marriage is better served by the wife working, like the wife of Proverbs 31. Or the husband does more household chores - growing fruits, veggies, grains, and livestock to sustain the whole household. Each marriage must sort out the specific roles for themselves. The main point of Complementarianism is that the husband is the leader and is responsible to Him for the success and failures of the family.
Now it may be that in your marriage, your spouse is better at the things traditionally thought of as your gender’s job. Perhaps, your wife is a better leader or the husband is better at honoring his wife with praise and adoration. This does not mean that Scripture is invalidated. I have seen many marriages where the wife is the one endowed with greater leadership skills, spiritual maturity, and intellect. A wife’s call to help, honor, and submit does not invalidate her intelligence or strength. Instead, her call to submit shows an even greater example than average of what it means when the Church submits to Jesus and He submission to the Father (Ephesians 5:24). It becomes an incredible powerful testimony!
Mature wives can help their husbands lead by asking informed and intelligent questions that help him think through the process. For you men, lean into you wife by asking her for her opinion and thoughts on various situations. Try her methods out and when the task has ended, ask her how it went and what you can do better.
Similarly, husbands, being the leader doesn’t mean you make all the decisions yourself or without input. As the leader in my house, I often ask Steph her opinion and we have discussions about a great many things. There are times, I’ll try her idea even when I disagree with it, because I know that I’m not always right, and God brought us together so that she can help me make wise, God glorifying decisions. As the leader, I still bear the responsibility for the results of the decision but I must choose to listen to counsel for there is wisdom there (Proverbs 12:15). We are often quick to think we know best, but the Scriptures tells that we are fools to think so (Proverbs 28:26). Men, trust your wives. God has put them in your lives for a purpose to sharpen you, grow you, and make you into the humble servant-leader that Jesus is.
God has designed men and women equal in value but different in emotions and physical strengths. These differences highlight His salvation story and help bring us closer together, just as our various giftings bring us closer together in the body of the church (1 Corinthians 12). One may be a preacher, but he is not better than the one who serves. All are equal, but all are called differently.
I hope that you hear the call of Scripture, to demonstrate the Gospel through your marriage. Love, honor, and respect each other by living out your God ordained rolls and listening to what God is teaching you through the example of your spouse.