What Is Mutual Submission and How Does It Apply to Marriage?

Image by  Alan Crük

Image by Alan Crük

We live in a time in which the meaning of words is shifting. A particular word that meant one thing fifty years ago may now additionally mean something entirely different (e.g. gay, cloud, tablet, viral, to name a few). 

A word’s meaning can also be broadened or narrowed. We find this to be the case with the word marriage, which was previously and almost universally defined as a formalized union between a man and a woman. It is now defined by Merriam-Webster as “the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law,” thereby removing the qualifying distinction from the definition that a marriage must involve one man and one woman. We see such shifting meanings today not only in the broader society but also in the church.

The terms “complementarianism” and “egalitarianism” have previously been useful for representing alternate views on male and female roles.

As second-wave feminism pushed its way into the church during the last century, some Christians pushed back in the 1980s with the view known as complementarianism. The complementarian position holds that men and women have equal worth in God’s sight, but different roles according to the Bible. This view is held in opposition to the term egalitarianism, which represents the view that men and women are equal with no differentiation whatsoever in roles or authority; thus, women should be able to do anything that men can do, including holding church offices and having equal weight in all decisions in all spheres of life. Egalitarians often appeal to a verse in the book of Galatians that states:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28; all Scripture verses from the ESV translation unless otherwise noted.)

The question used to be, “Who is right—complementarians or egalitarians?” One problem in answering this question today is that the definition of complementarianism has become somewhat fluid depending on who is discussing the topic. For just a few articles on the active pursuit during the last five to ten years to define—and redefine—the concept of complementarianism, please see here, here, and here.

In the not-so-distant past, it wasn’t even questioned that a complementarian marriage consisted of the man being the authoritative head of the household in his role as a husband and/or father, having the God-given responsibilities of leading, caring for, nurturing, and cherishing his wife and children. Yet, many people are focusing more and more on the aspect of a man’s servanthood in the leadership of his family in such a way that is increasingly diminishing his authoritative role.

Such views hold that the verse about “submitting to one another” in Ephesians 5:21 (“be subject to one another” in the NASB version) and the other “one another” verses supersede the Bible passages that teach the authoritative role of men in marriage. According to this view, a wife submits to her husband in love as he submits to her in love, bringing about “mutual submission” in love to each other. Thus, the headship of a husband is properly expressed in his loving service to his wife, with no need for any authoritative responsibility on his part in the marriage.

Headship played out differently before and after man’s fall in the garden of Eden.

As Denny Burk points out in an article for The Gospel Coalition, one of the key arguments against authoritative male headship is based on an interpretation of Genesis 3:16 that denies the reality of hierarchy before the fall.[1] It is true that the man’s desire to rule malevolently over the woman is a consequence of the fall and not the original design for male-female relationships before sin came into the world. Yet, we must not mistake the distortion of the ordered relationship in Genesis 3 as the origin for order in the relationship when an ordered relationship between Adam and Eve already exists in Genesis 2 perfectly.

The way a husband interacts with his wife is different pre- and post-fall. Yet, what is the difference, and how does it affect a Christian marriage? Is mutual submission with no authoritative head the goal in Christian marriage for believers?

What does the Bible say about male and female roles in marriage?

It is somewhat futile to hash out what the definitions of complementarianism and egalitarianism should be for multiple reasons. For one, these words aren’t found in the Bible; instead they are constructs that attempt to help us understand what God designed humans to be as male and female. We can make any word mean what we want it to mean, and we can interpret Bible verses to fit any definition we decide they should have.

Instead, let’s look at what the Bible actually says about male and female roles in marriage specifically, without subordinating multiple passages to one or two verses—or attempting to make Scripture conform to currently accepted cultural norms.

Man and woman were different and had different responsibilities before the fall.

The argument that the husband’s role before the fall was not authoritative fails on several counts:

  • Adam—not Eve—was given the responsibility to keep God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 2:16-17, God made a conditional covenant with Adam (also known as the covenant of works) to test his fidelity to his Creator. Eve had not been created at the time God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam was the covenant head who represented all of humanity—not Eve—and by his disobedience he brought condemnation on himself and all his posterity. Similarly, Jesus was the covenant head who, by his fully obedient life and perfect sacrificial death, secured salvation and eternal life for all who trust in him (see Romans 5:12-21 regarding the first Adam and the last Adam).

  • Adam exercised authority over the animals by naming them (Gen. 2:19). He also named Eve (Gen. 2:23).

  • Even though Eve sinned first, God placed the fault on Adam as he was the one who bore the responsibility to keep God’s command (Gen. 3:17-19).

God’s original design for marriage was loving leadership by the husband and willing submission by the wife as his helper.

In her book God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women, theologian Claire Smith describes God’s original design for the relationship between a husband and wife:

It is one of equality and difference. Their equality is plain enough. It was plain in Genesis 1 where they were both made in the image of God, and it is plain here as well. Here, they are both made of the same flesh and bone. They are both formed by God. They both inhabit the garden and enjoy God’s provision. They are both bound by the same divine commands.[2]

Smith further comments on the order within a marriage:

Here in Genesis these differences show there is an order in the relationship. The man and woman are equals but they are not identical, either in appearance (which is not explicit in the text) or in role (which is). He has a responsibility of leadership that she does not have, and she has a responsibility that he does not have, which is to accept his leadership and help tend and keep the garden.[3]

Thus, even before sin has entered the world, there is a clear design for the relationship between man and woman, and it involves an economy where there is leadership on the part of the man and following on the part of the woman. In fact, as Smith points out, the very fact that the serpent speaks to Eve first is “a reversal of God’s created order of relationships.”[4]

In a report on women serving in the ministry of the church that was adopted by the Forty-Fifth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, a study committee also addresses the reversal of roles in Genesis 3 that God had established in Genesis 2:

In 1 Timothy 2:14, Paul draws attention to a second role reversal in Genesis 2. Eve is deceived by the serpent, because, in part, Adam failed to play his role as husband and covenant keeper. Though Adam was created first (1 Tim. 2:13) and was personally given the command/prohibition by God before Eve was created (Gen. 2:15-17), Adam listened to his wife’s voice instead of God’s command. Moses explicitly explains: “Then [God] said to Adam, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, “You shall not eat from it”; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life’” (Gen. 3:17). Paul’s whole discussion in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is squarely based on Genesis 1-3. Eve was deceived, but Adam is responsible (Rom. 5:12, 19; 1 Cor. 15:21-22) because he failed in his role as covenant keeper and federal head. Adam listened to Eve, even when she contradicted the word God had personally spoken to him. Eve was deceived, but Adam disobeyed an explicit command. His was high-handed sin.[5]

The fact that God held Adam responsible for the transgression is clear evidence of his authoritative headship in the relationship with his wife Eve.

The “rotten fruit of the fall” was a distortion of God’s design for marriage.

Instead of the good fruit Adam and Eve were supposed to produce in God’s good design, they must now live with the rotten fruit of their sin:

To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
     in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
     but he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)

While it has been argued that the woman’s “desire” in Genesis 3:16 is a sexual craving for or psychological dependence on her husband, Smith explains that this “desire” is not referring to either one but rather the desire of the woman to rule her husband instead of willingly being under his authority:

Going back to [Genesis] 3:16, this means that Eve’s desire is a desire to dominate or manipulate or control her husband—that she will no longer willingly submit to his headship but will want to rule him instead. He, on the other hand, will rule over her. His headship is not a result of the Fall, but the way he expresses that headship after the Fall is—that is, as domination.

The unity, harmony and teamwork of Genesis 2 has been replaced by woman’s constant desire to control her husband, and his loving leadership has been replaced by domination or abdication (which is actually a passive form of domination).

This verse, then, does not represent the institution of male headship and wifely submission, but the distortion of it. The battle of the sexes has begun.[6]

In her essay “The Desire of the Woman: A Response to Susan Foh’s Interpretation,” author Rachel Miller rightly challenges Foh’s assertion that “the tyrannous rule of the husband seems an appropriate punishment for the woman’s sin” and that a post-fall husband “must master” his wife, pointing out the license for abuse such statements encourage.[7] To say that individual women deserve such treatment because of the fall is to also say that victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and famines are also receiving appropriate punishment for their sin of being in Adam.

The entire world is under a curse due to Adam’s disobedience, and we all experience the ramifications of the fall to varying extents in not only the sin and misery present in our relationships but also the havoc that permeates the natural creation around us. The distortion of male-female roles in marriage is one part of the curse that Christ came to take away (Rom. 5:12-21; 8:19-23).

Since redemption in Christ involves the reversal of the curse from the fall, Paul’s instructions to wives and husbands show that this reversal includes the transforming work of the Spirit in our sanctification to restore the previously distorted relationship between a husband and wife, with a return to loving leadership on the part of the husband and willing submission on the part of the wife (Eph. 5:22-33).[8]

The doctrine of vocation helps us understand how Ephesians 5:21 relates to other Bible passages about the submission of wives to their husbands.

One verse that is frequently cited in asserting that headship means unilateral mutual submission is Ephesians 5:21. Following are the verses leading up to and including verse 21 so we can read the passage in its proper context, which is an exhortation by Paul to the Ephesian church:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph. 5:15-21)

New Testament scholar S. M. Baugh is helpful regarding Ephesians 5:21 and what Paul is referring to regarding the phrase “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (NASB):

This short colon* (fourteen syllables) belongs as the last exposition of how the church is to express its fullness of God’s presence in the Spirit (v. 18) and serves to introduce Paul’s admonitions for order in the Christian family that follows: wives-husbands (5:22-23), children-parents (6:1-4), and slaves-masters (6:5-9; cf. Col. 3:18-25).[9]

Baugh goes on to address the use of Ephesians 5:21 by those who advocate egalitarian views:

Absolute mutual submission is popular today, particularly where egalitarian or democratic social and political philosophies rule. Paul’s general idea of submission, however, is explained and illustrated through the particular examples of family relations he develops in 5:22–6:9 (cf. Hoehner, 717; Barth, 610). Submission is not absolute for any party, but an individual submits in some ways to some people and not in other ways to others.[10]

When it comes to the vocation of being a child, for example, parents do not submit to their children’s authority; rather, children submit to the authority of their parents. We also see examples of the need to submit to authority that is not unilateral in our vocations as church members, employees, citizens, and the particular area being addressed in this article—spouses.

In other words, submitting to others means we are to submit to various forms of God-ordained authority, such as children to parents and wives to husbands. All Christian submission is done in love, but not all Christians submit in the same ways to each other. 

The Bible specifically addresses wives regarding godly submission to their husbands.

Here are some Bible passages regarding the submission of a wife to her husband:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Eph. 5:22-24)

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Col. 3:18)

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. (Titus 2:3-5)

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. (1 Pet. 3:1)

The Greek word Paul uses in Ephesians 5:21-24 for “submit” is hypotassó, and it is directly related to respect. Hypotassó refers to a wife’s “recognition of an ordered structure” in which her husband is the person to whom she should show appropriate respect “as to the Lord” (BDAG, 1042; Eph. 5:22; see also Col. 3:18 and 1 Pet. 3:1-6).

Paul also addresses a wife’s responsibility to respect her husband in Ephesians 5:33:

However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

The Greek word the apostle Paul uses in Ephesians 5:33 for the respect wives should have for their husbands is phobētai, which means to have a profound measure of reverence/respect for someone (BDAG, 1061). A wife’s submission in reverence and respect is directly connected to the authority of her husband. It is important to note that husbands are not told to submit to their wives in this same reverential manner (see also 1 Cor. 11:3).

It is critical to distinguish the difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian.

Since a wife is called to submit to her husband’s authority and be respectful of him, it most definitely exposes the wife to potential abuse—emotional and/or physical—by her sin-fallen husband. Such abuse is a grievous misuse/distortion of the husband’s leadership responsibility. Every husband has the responsibility to always honor his wife not only as a fellow image-bearer of God but also as the “weaker vessel”:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Pet. 3:7)

Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Col. 3:19)

What does Peter specifically mean by the term “weaker vessel”? In her commentary on 1 Peter, theologian Karen Jobes notes that the apostle may be addressing the situation of a converted husband whose wife may be adhering to Christianity outwardly while still being inwardly pagan:

The reference to the wife as coheir of the gracious gift of life may at first glance seem to prohibit an understanding that she is not a Christian. However, the hōs kai(3:7) may be read “as even a coheir.” This would then indicate that the husband is to treat his wife as if she were a sister in Christ. The unbelieving wife is to be accorded the same respect as a fellow Christian (since society would assume she shared her husband’s religion) with the hope of winning her to authentic faith. The believing wife, on the other hand, deserves to be treated as a fellow believer despite her gender. If she is a Christian, her status as a coheir levels the spiritual ground between the believing husband and believing wife, opening the door wider for social transformation.[11]

As Jobes points out, a Christian husband of high social standing in first-century Asia Minor with an unconverted wife could be viewed as someone who was not an effective leader in overseeing his household, which would be an embarrassment.[12] Yet, Christians husbands are to honor God first and not bow to either the social pressures or accepted practices of the culture. Whether the wife is a coheir or unconverted, Peter makes it clear that wives are to be treated with deference, being subject neither to physical abuse nor social oppression:

In the context of 1 Peter, the weaker vessel is primarily understood as physical weakness relative to men’s strength. Therefore, Peter’s exhortation indirectly addresses the issue of physical abuse. However, the immediate context makes it clear that the female is also weaker in the sense of social entitlement and empowerment. Peter teaches that men whose authority runs roughshod over their women, even with society’s full approval, will not be heard by God.[13]

Thus, when Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5:24, he does not mean that wives must endure abuse, neglect, or mistreatment of any kind by their husbands. Rather, Paul is reminding the church that a wife is under the authoritative leadership, not tyrannical rule, of her husband (Eph. 5:23).

Some Christian women have been wrongly taught that they have to tolerate any kind of treatment from their husbands in order to be biblically submissive and respectful, and this instruction must be fervently repudiated by the church. If a husband directs his wife to do anything that goes against her conscience, she always “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Because women—and men as well—are vulnerable to abuse in a marriage, they need to be under the proper oversight of faithful church leadership and civil authorities that God has provided for their care and protection.

Paul uses Christ as the example for how husbands should treat their wives:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.  (Eph. 5:25-30)

Baugh points to love as the guiding principle in all of a Christian’s vocations in life:

The only absolute rule for Christian behavior that is to guide everyone at all times is love. As a general guideline, believers are to submit to one another by considering others and their concerns more highly than themselves (Phil. 2:3-4) in mutual love and service (Gal. 5:13), and they are to submit to governing authorities in the church and in the world (e.g. Rom. 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 2:13; 5:5).[14]

In a Christian marriage, ideally the husband exercises loving, authoritative leadership and the wife lovingly submits to her husband as his helper, with both sharing the goal of doing no harm to anyone but rather bringing glory to God in all things. 

In both husband-wife and church officer-laity relationships, we find divinely revealed authoritative order.

Even though we find instances in the Bible where women served in roles that included some elements of leadership (e.g., prophetess, judge), governing authority in the church offices and headship in marriage follows the pattern given to us by God in 1 Corinthians 11:

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband,and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor. 11:3)

When a pastor/elder stands before the congregation, he represents Christ:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Pet. 5:1-5)

For a woman to hold church office would be to mimic the role reversal in Genesis 3. This is why Paul reminds the church that women are to receive God’s word in the formal church service quietly instead of proclaiming it authoritatively:

The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

And the apostle writes to Timothy:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Tim. 2:11-14)

The PCA Forty-Fifth General Assembly also addresses the topic of male-only authoritative leadership in the church:

While women maintain significant ministries in the church, they did not fulfill every role. Women occasionally served as judges, prophetesses, and co-laborers alongside church planters, but they were neither apostles (Matt. 10:2-4), nor expected to be monarchs (Deut. 17:14-20; 2 Sam. 7:12-16; cf. 2 Kgs 11). Additionally, God’s law dictated that priests were males (Exod. 29:30). Elders in the new covenant church (1 Tim. 3:1-7) and all of the traveling companions Paul mentions in his letters are male: Barnabas, Silas, Luke, Timothy, Titus, John Mark, Epaphras, and Epaphroditus, among others.

Women in ministry carry out important roles, but the biblical text demonstrates that men and women hold distinct, God-given roles in His church.[15]

Thus, while women have contributed much to the church throughout history and will no doubt continue to do so, their work and contributions do not include authoritative leadership in the church or a Christian marriage. There are many instances where women are the heads of their household due to singleness or being a widow, but where there exists a marriage there also exists male headship.

How should biblical roles for men and women work out practically in everyday life?

Here are some practical examples of how a husband might lovingly lead his wife to the glory of God:

  • The husband and wife are considering schooling choices for their children. The wife wants to do homeschooling, but the husband has objections for a variety of reasons. Perhaps he is worried about the burden it will place on his wife with her other responsibilities, or he is not sure their family can provide the same level of education as a public or private school can. The wife is passionate about wanting to homeschool, and the husband agrees to give it a try for a certain period of time. Later, both the husband and wife assess whether homeschooling is a fruitful path for their children and a healthy choice spiritually, emotionally, and physically for everyone in the family. Ultimately, the husband has the final say after weighing his wife’s counsel on whether to continue to homeschool their children.

    It may be that the husband is passionate about homeschooling, but the wife doesn’t feel like she has the skills/time/desire to be a full-time academic teacher for their children. Her husband believes she will do a wonderful job, and he encourages his wife to try homeschooling for a trial period with the caveat that she can discontinue doing so at any point if she still feels she isn’t suited for teaching their children academic subjects. The wife willingly submits to her husband’s direction, trusting in his leadership as he guides the family lovingly and faithfully to the glory of God in all things.

  • A husband or wife is considering a job change that may even require relocation. Perhaps this means that the family will need to move away from relatives who are a significant support system. The other spouse is against relocating, even if it means a better opportunity for the husband or wife work-wise. The couple may visit the area first, if funds allow, and assess the pros and cons of a potential move from a variety of perspectives. Both are careful not to rush to make a decision that will have longterm ramifications.

    The husband and wife weigh each other’s counsel carefully. The husband is exceedingly cautious regarding going against his wife’s opinion and advice as he respects her knowledge, wisdom, and experience, and he recognizes that God has given her to him as his helper in life. If the husband and wife cannot come to agreement, they may be able to delay the decision with the hope that more time and information will help them to make a wise choice. Otherwise, the husband must make the final determination regarding whether the family will make the move, and the wife must support her husband’s decision as long as doing so does not cause her to disobey God (Acts 5:29).

  • A husband may choose to place his wife in charge of making a big decision. If the result of the decision does not turn out well, the husband bears the ultimate responsibility for the outcome.

  • A wife wants to pursue certain vocations—perhaps those of being a student herself, starting a business, or becoming employed. Her husband gladly encourages his wife in her pursuits and finds great joy in seeing her grow in her talents, abilities, and passions. He takes his responsibility seriously as the leader of the family to continually assess whether his wife is flourishing in her pursuits or they are causing some harm to herself and/or the family, always supporting her and giving guidance and direction as needed along the way.

Women do not need to submit to every male.

To be clear, a woman does not need to submit to every male but only to proper church authorities, her father while under his care, and her husband if married, and in all circumstances only as is honoring to the Lord. (For further clarification on 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and Ephesians 5:21-25, two passages that provide instruction to women specifically in an ecclesiastical context, please listen to this helpful explanation from historical theologian R. Scott Clark.)

A woman, married or unmarried, can hold leadership positions over men in the common, civil sphere outside of the institutional church. A grown single woman is a free member of the Christian community. She is under the spiritual authority of the church and may marry if she so chooses:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:39)

In the same chapter, the apostle Paul goes so far as to personally commend singleness to women as well as men due to the freedom unmarried people have to serve the Lord without distraction:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:32-35)

Women who find themselves married to unbelievers are also enjoined by Scripture to submit to their husband’s authoritative leadership, and such submission could even be influential in the husband’s conversion:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. (1 Pet. 3:1-2)

Every Christian woman should only marry a Christian man whose judgment she can trust, since she will be placing herself under her husband’s authority. It is far better to be single than to become yoked to an unwise or downright foolish man, let alone a physically and/or emotionally abusive man. As stated above, when faced with a situation that violates her conscience, a wife must obey God just as Peter and the apostles did in Acts 5:29. We find a perfect example of such obedience in Judges 4 when Jael killed Sisera, the army commander of the Canaan king Jabin who had been cruelly oppressing Israel for twenty years.

Both women and men must always be diligent to protect themselves from abusive or even potentially abusive circumstances. Anyone who is a victim of domestic abuse needs to seek help from church and civil authorities. The church must have zero tolerance for abuse of any kind.

Scripture has the final say about male-female relationships.

While some people may not like what the Bible has to say about men’s and women’s roles in marriage, God has established a particular order in his sovereign wisdom, and Christians are first and foremost to submit to God’s will in all things. As the apostle Paul states:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2)

Because men and women have different roles, they should never feel as though one is better or more important than the other. Smith points out the joint calling of men and women:

Moreover, it is clear that, as male and female, man and woman need each other. They are charged with filling the earth and subduing it, and simple biology tells us they cannot do that alone (as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12). Their mission is a joint calling that requires and arises from their sexual differences, and they need each other to do what God created and designed them to do.[16]

Smith describes the teamwork between a husband and wife as a beautiful dance:

But while they have different responsibilities, there is no inequality between them. Genesis 2 is no excuse for men thinking they are better than women (or vice versa!). Men and women may be different but it is not a difference of superiority and inferiority.

As one writer puts it: this is not the march of patriarchalism (where the man hammers out the beat) or the race of feminism (where the woman wins), but rather the man and woman are equal and with different responsibilities. In God’s good design, their relationship is neither a march nor a race, but a dance where the man leads and the woman follows, and yet together they move as one, in perfect harmony.[17]

In a healthy Christian marriage, the husband and wife should lovingly and sacrificially put each other first before themselves, as fellow members of the body of Christ. Faithful headship involves creating an environment of openness and communication in which the husband honors his wife and values her opinions, all the while recognizing her equality and the gifts God has given her.

It may be—and usually is the case—that the wife sees things or knows things that her husband does not. It would be a foolish husband who did not seek out his wife’s views and together with her come to agreement about matters. Still, the husband has the final say as the authoritative head of the household, and he also bears responsibility for the entire family before God.

Christian husbands and wives won’t fulfill their God-given roles of husband and wife perfectly in this world because they are still sinners who fall short in numerous ways. Yet, the Bible calls spouses to strive to mature and grow in holiness over the years as long as they both shall live. The mutual love between a husband and wife should overflow with admiration and joy:

I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine;
    he grazes among the lilies.

You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love,
    lovely as Jerusalem,
    awesome as an army with banners. (Song 6:3-4)

As Smith so aptly states, the resulting beautiful dance could never happen without both husband and wife living, moving, and breathing in harmony as one to God’s glory in all.

Should Christians have an egalitarian marriage? Definitely not. Should they have a complementarian marriage? Well, that depends on your personal definition of complementarianism. Should they have a marriage that accepts the goodness, clarity, and authority of God’s word and therefore always seeks to honor God? Absolutely.

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Le Ann Trees is managing editor of Beautiful Christian Life.

This article has been updated since its original publishing date of October 2, 2018.


God's Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women by Claire Smith

[1] See Denny Burk, “5 Evidences of Complementarian Gender Roles in Genesis 1-2,” The Gospel Coalition, March 5, 2014, accessed August 9, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-evidences-of-complementarian-gender-roles-in-genesis-1-2/; see also Burk’s citation of Richard S. Hess, “Equality with and Without Innocence: Genesis 1-3,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 94-95.

[2] Claire Smith, God's Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2012), 171.

[3] Smith, God’s Good Design, 171.

[4] Smith, God’s Good Design, 175.

[5] Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church to the Forty-Fifth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, p. 22:13-25, www.pcahistory.org/pca/2017_WIM_report.pdf.

[6] Smith, God’s Good Design, 178. Regarding exegesis of Gen. 3:16, please also see Susan T. Foh, "What Is the Woman's Desire," The Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (Spr 1975): 376-383, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials PLUS, EBSCOhost; Claire Smith, “A Sidebar Named Desire,” The Gospel Coalition, September 17, 2012, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/a-sidebar-named-desire/; Wendy Alsup, “Problems with a New Reading of an Old Verse,” The Gospel Coalition, September 17, 2012, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/problems-with-a-new-reading-of-an-old-verse/; and Rachel Miller, “The Desire of the Woman: A Response to Susan Foh’s Interpretation,” A Daughter of the Reformation, March 2, 2017, https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/the-desire-of-the-woman-a-response-to-susan-fohs-interpretation/.

[7] Miller, “The Desire of the Woman”; see also Foh, "What Is the Woman's Desire.”

[8] Smith, “A Sidebar Named Desire.”

[9] S. M. Baugh, Ephesians: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016), 460.

[10] Baugh, Ephesians, 460.

[11] Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 208.

[12] Jobes, 1 Peter, 208.

[13] Jobes, 1 Peter, 209.

[14] Baugh, Ephesians, 460.

[15] Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church, p. 6:22-31.

[16] Smith, God’s Good Design, 168.

[17] Smith, God’s Good Design, 173-174; see also D. Bloesch, “Donald Bloesch Responds,” in Evangelical Theology in Transition: Theologians in Dialogue with Donald Bloesch, ed. E. M. Colyer (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 207.

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