Marriage at work (8) Decision making

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How do we couples make decisions in the light of Ephesians 5:21-33?  If wives submit to their husbands, does that mean that, as the head, he is responsible for all decision making?  Must she give in to him when there is an argument?

What then about our wife from the previous scenario?  Her ability to command a superior wage to her husband may well reflect greater intellectual capability and a temperament suited to decision making.  What if she has also been a Christian for longer, knows her Bible better and is generally seen as more spiritually mature?  We may identify three main approaches to the question.

7.1. Egalitarian

This position focuses on mutual submission and assumes that any hierarchical overtones in the household codes were cultural.

Balswick and Balswick argue that too often in marriage we view power as 100 units shared between the couple 50-50 and so it competed over.[1]  Husbands attempt to win control by dominating, whilst wives, often encouraged by marriage books, learn to manipulate the decision.[2] 

Instead, they recommend, “equal partnership marriages…based on ‘mutual empowerment.’”[3]  Decision making is something done together requiring listening, compromise and putting the other’s interests first until a shared decision is made.[4] 

The philosophical and theological necessity of this approach is set out by Groothius. She argues that if wives are not active and equal in decision making, then we cannot claim that they are equal in nature with their husbands.[5]  She argues that because women are excluded from leadership in the home and the church, this means that male qualities are characterised in terms of leadership, strength and rationality.[6]  Female responsibilities such as child rearing require qualities shared with all female creatures in the animal world; thus women are denied qualities and responsibilities that distinguish them as human.[7] 

I find Groothius’ analysis suspect.  It isn’t decision making and leadership that distinguishes humans from animals.  If that were so, then many men who lack leadership responsibilities and intellectual capability would also be seen in some sense as less human.  Furthermore, there are significant, observable distinctions between the way that a female animal raises its young and human home making and child nurturing activities.

However, we should not lose sight of one of the strengths of the Egalitarian approach. It is telling that both Christian and secular marriage courses and books highlight how conflict arises in marriage because of our tendency to be selfish and point score.[8] Balswick’s comments about point winning are instructive and remind us that the focus in Ephesians is on unity. 

We are left with one question though.  What happens when a quick decision is needed and an impasse is reached?

7.2. Hard Complementarian[9]

This approach focuses on headship and submission.  It assumes that there is no such thing as mutual submission.

In this scenario, husbands are responsible for making the decisions.  So, for example, Wilson notes that “headship” functions indicatively and not imperatively in Ephesians 5.  The husband is not instructed to “be the head.”  He is the head.  The question is whether he will be a good head or a bad head.  As we have seen before, for Wilson, failing to lead is failing to love.[10]  He refers to this as “nice man syndrome.”  The husband may be seen as gentle and caring, but in fact, whenever he abdicates his leadership responsibility, (for example by refusing to make decisions[11]) he leaves her frustrated.[12]

This hierarchical approach may at times be softened by the suggestion that when making decisions, husbands are to listen, take advice, delegate.[13]  However, decision making remains firmly their responsibility.  They are to take account of the family’s needs and make wise decisions.[14]

The problem with Wilson’s approach is that husbands are “nowhere told, ‘Exercise your headship!’”[15]  O’Brien’s point is emphatic.  The husband’s model is Christ.  Whilst the full eschatological picture does show Christ with all authority and power, crushing his enemies, the focus of the love parallel is seen in Christ’s incarnation and his willingness to humble himself.

Indeed, we might reverse Wilson’s thinking and argue that leadership is about love.  The leader takes the initiative in being the first to act sacrificially for the needs of the other.  He sets the agenda and the tone of the relationship.[16]

Therefore, I do not think that the husband should overrule where there is an impasse.  He should be patient, keep loving, keep caring, even if that means for a time that things do not work out as he thinks they should. 

However, Wilson does make a helpful point by connecting headship with a responsibility that cannot be relinquished.  He says,

“Now a godly husband may decide, after taking his wife’s concerns into account, to do things ‘her way.’  But in a godly home, as soon as he does this, it becomes his decision.  He is entirely responsible for it.  Once the decision is made, it is his decision.  If his wife tries to blame herself for how it all turned out, he should restrain her.  ‘No, dear.  This is all my doing.’  It may have been her idea in the discussion, but in a biblical home, it was his idea to do it.”[17]

This does portray the husband as loving and protecting his wife.  By taking responsibility, he does two things.  He protects her from carrying blame and he minimises the potential for conflict.  This is the sort of empowering leadership that frees people to make decisions.

7.3. Soft Complementarian[18]

Like the Egalitarian position, this approach places the emphasis on mutual submission but still see a place for headship.  Husbands do have leadership responsibilities; so, for example, Huggett envisages a scenario equivalent to that of the chairman having the casting vote.[19] 

One church pastor I spoke to talked about mutual submission meaning that, “lose-lose becomes win-win.”  The husband and wife both put the other’s needs first and, as a result, both benefit.  Again though, he saw the husband as head having ultimate leadership responsibility.[20]  Another pastor comments that, “There is mutual submission and final submission.”  This means that there are many shared decisions and decisions that the wife takes responsibility for and a loving husband will allow her to make decisions even when he disagrees sometimes.  However, he has responsibility for shaping the spiritual tone and agenda of the marriage.[21]

7.4. Response

I believe that the third position is closest to what we have discovered to be the implications of Ephesians 5, with some modifications.

The casting vote approach might be a little simplistic and lead to the assumption that marital decisions are made in isolation.  However, we have seen that the household codes must be read in context.  In Ephesians 5, both the broader context of unity and the immediate context portraying the life of a spirit filled community discourage an isolationist view.  Decisions are made not only in submission to husband and wife but also to one another in the church.  There is a place for receiving help from others, especially the godly advice of elders in the church.

I agree that the responsibility for setting the tone is important.  In that regard, husbands should not hide behind the spiritual maturity question.  We may be temperamentally or intellectually unsuited to certain aspects of decision making, but spiritual maturity is not a fixed state characteristic outside our control.  We are responsible for growing in maturity and, in the immediate context, we see that being filled with the Spirit is an imperative.  Therefore, husbands should take responsibility for their spiritual state and seek to grow.  As they do so, they can set the tone to married life both by their example of sacrificial love and by reminding the family about their priorities as Christians.

This means that headship and submission impact the content as well as the process of decision making.  The wife, as helper, is not submitting to her husband’s arbitrary demands: she is relinquishing any claim to an independent agenda for self advancement and joining herself to his agenda.  However, that agenda has already been set for him as it is God’s agenda reflected in the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission.

Finally, we have seen in our exegesis of Ephesians 5 that whilst headship and submission are present, these are means to an end.  The primary focus of the passage is on unity: becoming one flesh.  This means that when an outsider observes the couple making decisions, their attention should not be captured by the way that he leads and she submits.  Rather, what they should see is that the two are together, of one mind in the decision.  Our aim should be to grow together so that instead of protracted discussion to reach decisions, we instinctively know and share the other’s will on a matter.


[1] Judith K Balswick and Jack O Balswick, “Marriage as a Partnership of Equals,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. (Ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordan D. Fee. Leicester: Apollos), 2004), 450.

[2] “The not-too-subtle intent of many women’s books is to teach wives how to manipulate their husbands in order to get what they want.  This approach views the husband as the weak link because the subordinate wife can easily outsmart him.  She is taught to use sex to get her way….  By merely disobeying him or refusing sex, or showing little interest in the relationship, she brings his masculine ego into question.  At this point, his power is effectively reduced to zero, leaving him alone and desperate.”  Balswick and Balswick, “Marriage as a Partnership of Equals,” 451.

[3] Balswick and Balswick, “Marriage as a Partnership of Equals,” 452.

[4] Balswick and Balswick, “Marriage as a Partnership of Equals,”452.

[5] Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, “‘Equal in Being, Unequal in Role’: Exploring the Logic of Woman’s Subordination,”  in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. (Ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordan D. Fee. Leicester: Apollos), 2004), 304.

[6] Groothuis, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role,” 308.

[7] Groothuis, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role,” 309.

[8] See for example, Nicky and Sila Lee, The Marriage Book: How to Build a Lasting Relationship (London: Alpha, 2000), 109. See also Sarah Litvinoff, The Relate Guide to Better Relationships.  London:  Vermilion, 1991, 87 – 89.

[9] I am essentially following Balswick and Balswick’s categories here where they distinguish between “hard patriarchy” and “soft patriarchy.”  Balswick and Balswick, “Marriage as a Partnership of Equals,” 449.

[10] Douglas Wilson, Reforming Marriage (Moscow, Id..: Canon Press, 2005), 23-24.

[11] Wilson, Reforming Marriage, 81.

[12] Wilson, Reforming Marriage, 77.

[13] See e.g. George W Knight III, “The Family and the Church: How should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood work Out in Practice?” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism  (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991), 349.

[14] Knight, “The Family and the Church,” 349.

[15] Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary.  Leicester: Apollos: 1999), 419.

[16] See O’Brien, Ephesians, 419.

[17] Wilson, Reforming Marriage, 82.

[18] See note above on the “Hard Complementarian” approach.

[19] Joyce Huggett, Two Into One? – Relating in Christian Marriage.  Leicester:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1981, 51.  Note that in such a case it isn’t about one being better than the other.  After all, if she was the more capable, then even a wise leader would let her make the decision.  It is when there is an impasse of equally guided, equally gifted people that the problem arises. 

[20] Christopher Jenkins, Pastor of Christchurch Baldock, Hertfordshire.  I interviewed a number of pastors face to face and via email as part of my research. 

[21] Wesley Aiken, Pastor of Rochester Baptist Church, Medway, Kent.