Does Complementarity Just Boil Down to a Tiebreaker?

This is a common teaching on headship as Christians try to work out the practical implications of Eph. 5:15-33. One wise husband who emailed me commented that he and his wife have humbly been trying to work out what this passage means for 36 years now, and he still has a lot to learn:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

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.

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.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

He points out an interesting comment a husband made in a marriage counseling session with Dr. James Boice (I believe he is quoting from his booklet, How to Be Happy as a Family).  More people may think this way about what headship means than possibly admit it:

“I was counseling a couple who were soon to be married, and I asked if they understood what God meant when He said that the wife was to be in subjection to her husband and that the husband was to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it. The wife was wise enough to remain silent. But the man blurted out, ‘That means that we are to love each other; but whenever we disagree I am to give her a hug and a kiss, and after that we're to do things my way.’" 

Ruth Tucker addresses this way of thinking in her book, Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife, quoting well-meaning men who actually apply this right down to differences in opinion of where the married couple will grab their dinner for the night. She then asks, “How do egalitarians work out differences in their marriages? Who is the tiebreaker? When I asked my complementarian colleague about how his headship might look in relationship to the daily routine, I had actually expected something more significant than whether or not to eat at Taco Bell” (49). She then explains the mutuality in an egalitarian marriage when it comes to decision-making:

How do egalitarians deal with a tiebreaker situation? Let’s say the husband is offered a transfer with a substantial salary increase; the wife is settled in the neighborhood---near family, schools, and church. But the husband wants the opportunity to climb the career ladder. Or let’s say the situation is reversed, and the wife has an opportunity to climb the ladder to success. Such a life-changing decision should simply be based on mutuality, and no major move should be made until both husband and wife are fully on board. Can this lead to serious conflict? Of course it can, no matter whether the marriage is based on equality or male headship. (49)

I disagree with both her complementarian examples and the egalitarian one she offers. If no major move is made until both husband and wife are fully on board, one is already submitting---the one who doesn’t get to move. She is right, that will lead to serious conflict. I would say that the biblical model of marriage, as described in Eph. 5, would call for the husband to give himself first to sacrifice for his wife. As the head in the Christian context of the kingdom of God, he should be the first to sacrifice. But I do have a caveat. Every situation is different. If we are talking about where to eat dinner, husbands submit to your wife and sacrifice for her in that way---unless your wife seems to have no concern about pleasing you ever. If she is never willing to sacrifice and submit her own desires to please you, then you have a problem. That doesn't mean it's time to "rule over her," but it probably means it is time for a conversation about how you are to love one another. You don't demand submission, it is a voluntary gift. Wives, care about where your husband wants to eat too. Don’t take advantage of his being the first to sacrifice. But most of us already know this, right?

In a marriage, decisions are made together.

When it comes to something more substantial, like uprooting the family for a career, both husband and wife should empathize with one another. I do believe the husband is called to sacrifice first for the wife. But the first priority of that sacrifice for his wife is to consider the effects of their decision under the mission of God he is entrusted to for his family. The point of headship is unity. There is a theological mission attached to being the head of the household, and the husband is to tend to this.  It is eschatological. We are moving toward something---our mission to be summed up in Christ’s household, to be sanctified for his purposes, and to reign with him on the new heavens and the new earth. This eschatological goal shapes the mission of the household. This mission needs to reach the next generation and the ones after that. And so the head needs to ensure that our faith is articulated well, that the members of the household live accordingly, and that it is passed down to the next generation. This is true of the family, and of the household of God, his church. 

So there are other factors to consider, such as the condition of their finances, is the spouse’s job unbearable, how much time does each spouse have to spend away from the household to earn a living, how it will affect the wellbeing of the rest of the family, or how this career and move supports or sabotages the mission. As the head, the husband bears a responsibility to which the wife should lovingly submit to and not try and sabotage. In a godly marriage, the wife knows how much her husband wants to please her. She knows he's called to be the first to sacrifice, the first to love. So she shouldn’t manipulate that by her own selfishness. 

The thing is, everyone is called to submit in the tiebreakers. A marriage is a unity and decisions are made together. But the special responsibility of the husband as head isn’t about a moment in a tiebreaker decision. As Robert Wall describes, the head is to continuously “think about the mission, describe it, communicate it, keep it constantly before the group, and develop goals on the basis of it” (Robert Wall with Richard Steele, 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus, 259). This kind of care for the family will nurture mutual submission on all kinds of daily decision-making. And when the big ones come up such as moving for a job, the foundation will be properly laid.  

I do agree with Tucker that there will still be serious conflict in both egalitarian and complementarian marriages, because we are dealing with sinners after all. But I do hope that in both types of marriages, that will be alleviated by our unity in Christ and our mission to consummate that union.

But the gentleman who emailed me is right---we all still have a lot to learn.



*I've written more about this:

On Headship and Household

Niether Complementarian Nor Egalitarian: A Review