In Marriage, Who Takes the Lead?

If you have been raised with a traditional view of marriage, you’ve probably heard the husband is in charge. “In a marriage, the man is God’s delegated authority. He leads.”

It sounds Biblical, but it isn’t. It has more in common with those sexist advertisements of yesteryear than anything said by the Apostle Paul.

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

The word for love (agapao) is a verb associated with the unconditional love (agape) of God. In other words, men, if you want to know what real love is like, look to Jesus who laid down his life for you. Do the same for your wife.

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

This should not be read as an invitation for the husband to dominate the wife like he’s lord of the manor. Instead, it’s an invitation for the wife to submit out of love, as is fitting in the Lord. In other words, if you want to know what submission is like, look to the One who has a gentle and humble heart.

We need to take a moment to reflect on what Paul is saying, because no one ever said anything like this before.

In ancient Israel you loved your wife for as long as she provided you with children and didn’t displease you. If she failed to perform, you could replace her for a better model.

“That’s not love,” Paul would have said. “Loving your wife has nothing to do with her appearance or ability to prepare tasty meals. Nor does it have anything to do with your feelings. True love is intentional. It is choosing to love an imperfect person with the perfect love God has shown you.”

It takes two to tango and it takes two loving people to make a good marriage. It’s not always easy, but when the husband and wife both respect and prefer one another, the result is a blessed and fruitful partnership.

Love in la-la land

If you have been raised in a culture where the men rule and women do what they’re told, a marriage of equals can seem like something out of la-la land.

How can a marriage work when there are two chiefs?

It works when each chief is totally committed to the success of the other. He plays the supportive husband, and she plays the supportive wife, because both want the best for each other.

Equality in role relationships does not mean both partners take turns doing every household chore. Equality means the husband and wife are equally willing to work hard and make adjustments in their marriage. Decisions are made jointly, and the division of tasks is based on preferences rather than gender stereotypes.

But what if the two chiefs can’t agree? What then? When push comes to shove, who gets the final call?

Speaking about her relartionship with her husband, the late Rachel Held Evans offered this answer:

We never really know how to respond to this question because, frankly we don’t do a lot of “pushing and shoving” in our relationship. We’ve never reached the great hypothetical impasse that folks seem so curious about. Even when we disagree, we find compromises based on multiple factors, not a gender-based trump card.

I couldn’t agree more. Camilla and I have been married for more than 20 years and in that time, I can only think of a few occasions when we didn’t see eye to eye. Major disagreements just don’t come up that often, and when they do, they are usually no match for our mutual love and respect.

I’m not saying we’re the Von Trapp family singing away our problems…

That would be cuckoo. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

But love conquers all.

Except when it doesn’t.

It’s a sad fact of life that some marriages break, and people get hurt. Those who promote traditional or patriarchal marriages believe marriages fail when partners are unwilling to accept the roles for which they are designed. “Problems arise when the men don’t lead and the women don’t submit.”

If that were true, hierarchical marriages would be the happiest and longest lasting. They are not. Research shows that the divorce rates of Christians are little different from atheists and agnostics.

Unhappy hierarchical marriages

Marriages fail because the people in them are unhappy, and the unhappiest marriages are the traditional ones.

A large study of 50,000 couples found that role relationships have a tremendous impact on marital satisfaction. Most couples in egalitarian marriages (81 percent) are happy, while most couples (82 percent) in traditional marriages are unhappy.

It’s no surprise to learn that marriages characterized by mutual respect and equality are happier. What is surprising is that many Christian marriages are intentionally unequal. They are more Athenian than Ephesian, and perhaps this is why our divorce rates are so high.

But who’s in charge?

We have been discussing love and submission, but we have skirted around the issue of who takes the lead in a marriage.

Jesus does.

He leads and guides us and shows us how to love our partners through thick and thin, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. And Jesus teaches us how to forgive, which is key to success in any relationship.

In a traditional marriage, forgiveness, like submission, is coerced from the woman. “Forgive his failings because he’s your husband.”

But true forgiveness, like submission, is something we give in response to love. We don’t forgive because we’re supposed to or because we fear divine wrath. We forgive one other as Christ forgave us.

Your partner will make mistakes, disappoint you, and let you down. When that happens, be quick to forgive. Dispense the patience and compassion that you have received from Jesus.

Let his grace heal both your wounds.

Extracted and adapted from The Silent Queen.

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11 Comments on In Marriage, Who Takes the Lead?

  1. Good words again, Paul! To fully understand our roles it seems best to start with marriage and Genesis with being each others helpers, then the role of women in the Church flows naturally. (Speaking from the experience of 46 years of a healthy marriage.)

  2. Frank Fowler // September 9, 2021 at 2:46 pm // Reply

    Very well said.. I’ve had 2 Christian marriages.. the first ended up in divorce sadly, been in current one for nearly 16 years and I’d describe it like your article.. a lotta give and take Jesus way.. thanks

  3. Hey, Paul. I’ve never been married but you make total sense 😉 Jesus should lead any relationship, including marriage but especially that one : ) For almost 39 years I have been influenced by toxic theology I’ve been taught, thinking that it really was the truth . But in 2015 you were a part of that change that had begun happening in 2009. I know I’ve been taught , and I believe the vast majority of believers have been taught, we are to die to ourselves daily, follow the Big 10,and ask for forgiveness each time we sin. Actually instead of doing all of this in hopes of pleasing Him, we need to change our views about God and realize He is already pleased with us and crazy in love with us because of who He is and what He has done through His Son to show us that love. Humans are going to disappoint us including our spouses. They can’t meet all our needs. God designed us on purpose so that we can only truly be fulfilled by Him. If each spouse truly understands that, then they can reconcile with each other when things get rocky reflecting back on how they first fell in love in the beginning.

  4. I think a lot of this can be expanded out into our overall understanding of authority. Our worldly view of authority is contrary to the authority demonstrated by Jesus. We see authority as bossing people around. We think people need to start serving us, but we don’t see Jesus using His authority in this way. He who is the greatest among you shall be your servant(Mt 23:11). This describes the life of Jesus, He came to serve and to help us. His focus is on the good of the other person, not Himself. Many pastors as well as spouses could benefit from this type of authority. If you are the head, it means you are the foot washer, not the foot washee. 🙂

    • Hey, LJP. That’s so true that we need to be the washer and not the washee LOL Hope you’re doing well!

      • Hello, doing well, always a pleasure to hear from you. I took the liberty of creating a new word, haha. Hope you are doing well also!

    • Very true, LJP. The worst bosses are the ones that just want to get their way, and use you to that end. The best ones are the ones that want you to be successful, happy, and fulfilled and place themselves into the service of that end. I’ve had both. Respect and admiration for the latter was easy.

      And yes, this all comes straight from the true model of marriage Paul has laid out above.

  5. Amen to all of this.Both men and women need to look to the Lord for His wisdom in any and all relationships. He is the only worthy,sure,true,stable and healthy Example of how to love and be loved and conduct ourselves in any relationship especially in marriage.He alone is to be the Lord is the only One worthy,unconditionally loving and whole to be the Lord over relationships.not us,we are too damaged,and our understanding of relationship,sexes and love is too “corrupted and error prone I due to worldly influence. I come from an unbelieving broken home,I was brought up by two women,my father was “absent” in many ways.Both parents were wilfull in that they both believed that the world should be run patriartically according to my dad and matriarchally according to my mum.None of these are correct and I disliked and was miserable about both these views as they did not help but hindered and damaged me.The Lord saved me and revealed the right way HIM and His help and teaching on who/how to be who God created us to be the whether male or female. Only He can enlighten us on how to be male and female,human and how to conduct ourselves by the leading and teaching,enlightening of His Holy Spirit.

  6. Thank you so much Paul for all your posts in E2R in spite of a very slow internet signal in a remote village here in the Philippines, i can still received it, and it encouraged and enlightened me. God bless you continually.

    From, Alfredo

  7. ABBA God the Only living Creator,created men and women,only He knows how we are supposed to be,function,how we work- male ,female together and individually so let’s look to Him to empower,teach,help,show us,enable us how to be and do in Christ Jesus,we can’t only He can.Let us let the Creator lead,teach,empower the created by His Holy Spirit that He sent us after Jesus ascended to help us. We need to stop “trying to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thinking we have to or can do or figure this out by ourselves and to just eat from the tree of Life- Jesus. Zechariah 4:6 not by might nor by power but by My Spirit says the Lord God Almigjty, you will succeed because of My Spirit

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