Does Someone Have to Be in Charge of Your Marriage?

Christian complementarianism often makes this argument, as explained in the book Love and Respect, by Emerson Eggerichs: “What your husband wants is your acknowledgement that he is the leader, the one in authority. This is not to grind you under or treat you as inferior. It is only to say that because God has made your husband responsible (review Eph. 5:22-33), he needs the authority to carry out that responsibility. No smoothly running organization can have two heads. To set up a marriage with two equals at the head is to set it up for failure. That is one of the big reasons that people are divorcing today.” (page 221)

My main issue with that is this: Why must some Christians insist that marriage is “an organization” or should work like one? Marriage is an organic unit, a synthesis, a joining of two into one body. It is, or should be, the best kind of best-friend relationship you could ever have.

Best friends do not need one of them to be the leader. In that case they wouldn’t be best friends, they’d be hero and sidekick. One thing best friends never are, is boss and subordinate as in an employment model. As soon as you set up that model, the friendship has been compromised. That’s why bosses are advised to never become close friends with their employees, but to always maintain a certain distance.

The Bible teaches that two people who are married become “one flesh,” not “one organization.” Christians through the ages have celebrated married love as a thing of divine (and mutual) oneness. A selection from Richard Cranshaw’s Poem “Epithalamium” from the 1600’s, is a good illustration:

May each maintain a well-fledged nest
Of winged loves in either’s breast;
Be each of them a mutual sacrifice
Of either’s eyes.

Oneness is never about who’s in charge. It’s about selfless giving, about mutual understanding and concern. It’s about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Some may here be saying, “All right, marriage is not an organization. But surely running a home and family is? Does not the running of a home require an organization, and thus someone to be in charge?”

To this I would reply that not even in the business world are all organizational models founded on someone being in charge. Partnerships are a very viable business model; one that works well in a very small business with a small membership (any family with less than 15 children would surely fit this definition). When two partners have contributed equally to a venture, and both have equal risk, then neither one is in charge. Because of this, each has great incentive to work for consensus.

A family is indeed a social group with members who need leadership and direction: namely, the children.  But in an equal partnership, both the father and the mother can lead the children without either one leading the other.  Each can take the lead in his or her own areas of expertise, just as in a small business, one partner might be in charge of sales and the other in charge of accounting.  In a family where the wife is better with figures and the husband better at planning events, for instance, she might defer to him on when and where to throw a party, and he might defer to her on how much to spend on it.  There would be no need for either one to try to squeeze into rigid “roles” that neither is suited for.  They could be the individuals God designed them to be, each balancing the other’s strengths and weaknesses, functioning as “one flesh” in harmony and enjoyment.

In a marriage run on these principles, each partner would have a vested interest in listening to and finding ways to compromise with the other partner, so that the partnership would not fail. If a business partnership can work in this way, then a married couple can plan together a working structure for home management without ceasing to be best friends and one-flesh companions.

In fact, the marriage described in Proverbs 31:10-31 appears to work on these principles.  Patriarchal versions of Christianity focus on how hard the wife works, and her domestic accomplishments.  But notice how much independent action the woman takes in this idealized picture of harmonious Ancient Near East marriage.  Her husband “doth safely trust in her” as she buys real estate, runs her own clothing business, and manages the home servants.  She is not recorded as needing, or seeking, his leadership in any of these things.  He has his own duties in the city, and he does not interfere with her, but lets “her own works praise her in the gates.”

Does the Bible ever say, “in any human relationship, someone must be in charge”? If it does, I’d like to see the chapter and verse. I have never read anything that indicated that David and Jonathan, or Paul and Barnabus, considered one of them to be in charge of the other. This blog has already explored how Ephesians 5:21-33 actually reflects the intention of the Holy Spirit to lead Christian marriages out of the husband-rule paradigm of the culture in which it was written, and into mutuality.

If anyone is in doubt, let me ask this: Do you know of anyone who has proposed to his future wife in this manner?

“Honey, I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Therefore, I am offering you entry into an organizational structure in which I am the boss and you the subordinate, and I will always have final say. You may have input, and I will listen to you if I think it’s in our best interests for me to do so, but remember, I am the one who will always decide what is in our best interests, and I will expect you to do your duty and go along with that, whether you like it or not. So– with that understood, here’s the ring. Will you marry me?”

Do I hear wedding bells?

submitted for “A Week of Mutuality: June 4-10, 2012”

About krwordgazer

I'm a 40-something Christian from the Pacific Northwest: paralegal, mother of two, wife of 24 years, with a BA in English from the University of Oregon Honors College.
This entry was posted in Authors, Bible, Ephesians 5, Kristen Rosser, Practical Living, Proverbs 31 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Does Someone Have to Be in Charge of Your Marriage?

  1. trevsykes says:

    No, I don’t think that you will hear any wedding bells under that arrangement, except maybe from a woman who really wants that kind of leadership from a man and idealises marriage in that way.

    Another great piece Kristen. You are really getting to the heart of this practical aspect of a truly egalitarian marriage relationship. Liz and I are primarily committed to managing the blogposts and comments on the Scroll so can’t put the time in on here that it deserves. Thank you so much for all of your contributions. They are so wise, biblical and insightful.

  2. Charis says:

    I agree with Trevor. Your words are insightful, KR. When you put the marriage proposal that way, of course a woman would RUN the other direction!

    My experience is that the marriage killing effect of “husband authority” doctrine is not obvious for years, maybe decades. By then, having built on such a faulty foundation, the “marriage building” is crooked if not collapsed. Why not build on a healthy foundation of equality to begin with?

  3. krwordgazer says:

    “When you put the marriage proposal that way, of course a woman would RUN the other direction! ”

    True. And yet this is what young Christian couples are being taught that marriage really is. This is what the groom assumes is going to happen after the wedding, and what the bride accepts as her lot. Why do they still go through it? Because they love each other and believe this is God’s will.

    My own husband then decided to always give me input and to almost always do what I wanted, because he wanted me to be happy. And I secretly felt bad that he wasn’t being enough of a “leader,” and guilty that he was deferring to me too much, while he felt wholly inadequate to be what the church told him he was designed to be– my authority. How freeing it felt to just let all those expectations go, love one another and put one another before ourselves as Philippians 2 said, and relax in our friendship.

  4. emsolideogloria says:

    Really good post. I brought up the small business partnership analogy to my pastor once while I was still single in response to his argument that the family had to have a single leader.

  5. Helen says:

    Any man who proposed that to me I’d run!

  6. Pingback: RHE – the mutuality 2012 synchroblog: a re-blog | Morven's Blog

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