“Who makes the final decision?” my husband and I asked each other as we worked on dinner one evening.
We agreed that our premarital counseling and the messages on marriage we had heard all taught that the husband held the authority to veto or make an ultimate decision. But at the time of our discussion we were eleven years into marriage and had always made our decisions together. We wondered if the Bible explicitly gave husbands the final say in decision making, or had the Christian teachers around us simply offered one possible interpretation? If we did find verses that explicitly gave husbands the final say, how would that change our daily life?
Having a Biblical Marriage Mattered to Us
We took this discussion seriously because we were fully committed to the Bible. We had heard that marriages of mutuality were bowing to cultural demands in a bid for equality. They were full of desperate grapples for rights and spread-out power dynamics. Our church, mentors, and peers had taught us that marriages with mutually deferential spouses led to the husband abdicating his God-given authority and the wife domineering in a bid to seize power. It was the craftily manipulated role reversal story as old as creation itself—men refusing to lead and women desiring to dominate.
But we also felt confused and conflicted: how exactly was our marriage unbiblical? We both sought guidance from the Holy Spirit. Frequently, we communicated our wants, desires, expectations, and needs. We tabled big decisions until we were in agreement.
Was it really Christlike for my husband to get the final say in a decision—perhaps ignoring my discernment or causing me to dismiss my convictions? Did God want me to ignore my intuition and discernment to appease my husband? We found more questions than answers as we attempted to reconcile our marriage to what we were taught biblical marriage looked like.
Understanding the Complementarian View of Marriage
We started with reading complementarian articles about who had the final say. Authors and scholars cobbled together passages like Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11, Colossians 3, and Hebrews 13:17. They always concluded that husband authority/wife submission was the only way to have a biblical marriage. We even heard a message that said ‘‘bedroom conversations” were in order if a marriage didn’t subscribe to complementarian theology.
And we talked it over with others. One person argued that because a marriage reflects Christ’s relationship to his church, men reflect Jesus and women reflect the church. If there was disagreement, the wife (as the church in this metaphor) would obey the husband (as Christ in this metaphor) and not vice versa because Jesus never submitted to the church. Others brought up improbable scenarios and the most extreme life situations where a decision had to be made immediately.
While we agreed that sometimes reaching a mutual agreement wasn’t doable, we wondered why we had to default to the husband making the final call. What if the wife had more experience, knowledge, or insight? Why should ultimate decision-making abilities and authority rest on the husband’s shoulders?
The default complementarian teaching about marriage seemed to have three primary conclusions:
- Head means “leader” or “authority.”
- Submission means obedience and is unilateral.
- Men alone have direct authority from God to lead, mediate, and answer to God for their families.
We wrestled with ideas of headship, submission, leadership, and creation order for many years. Eventually, we started to see that whatever these Bible verses were saying, they did not explicitly grant unilateral authority to husbands over wives.
Interpersonal Conflicts in a Hierarchical Marriage Model
- We discovered many interpersonal conflicts that an attitude of “husbands have the final word” could not easily resolve:
- The problem of sin that we all struggle with is blissfully ignored. How exactly is the husband qualified to pull rank and get a final say when he can’t always have pure motives and act with total selflessness because he—like his wife—is also a sinner?
- The relational work of communication and dialogue during conflict takes a back seat. Then, resentment can abound as the wife constantly sacrifices and compromises.
- Power imbalances can go unchecked, which is particularly harmful in an abusive marriage.
- A double standard arises where women with strong beliefs have “emotional and opinionated views,” yet men with strong beliefs have “deep and thoughtful convictions.”
- Women are taught they cannot trust their wisdom and intuition and must rely on a husband to make the decisions. When women are treated as if they are innately incapable, they are denied the experience of making decisions and even denied culpability for their mistakes and sins. The burden rests solely on their husband’s shoulders.
- The husband never has to act against his conscience. If he feels passionately about something, he can veto his wife at any time.
- A focus on the husband stepping into his leadership role excludes his wife from stepping into hers. The wife ignores her spiritual gift of discernment to appease her husband and (she thinks) God.
- Spouses skip the need to pray and work thoughtfully through an issue together. They rely more on the husband’s human decision-making capabilities than on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
- Cultural stereotypes about women and men become the norm rather than leaving room for individual personalities, strengths, and gifts. The very definition of manhood insists that men have innate authority built into their DNA and women have “responding to good leadership” instilled in theirs.
Finding Mutuality throughout the Bible
The hierarchical marriage model that complementarians championed had so many potential conflicts and subpar solutions. We still wondered, what does the Bible actually say? In complementarian arguments, we had seen the same handful of cherry-picked verses, text analysis, and circular arguments.
Looking elsewhere, we found scholars and writers giving a biblical defense of mutuality in marriage. There was plenty of abstract discussion on this side, too, but we started to see practical answers. They helped us see that the Bible does affirm mutuality between women and men—and husbands and wives. We weren’t just trying to make the Bible fit into what we already sensed and lived out; the Bible was in fact the authority to which we were submitting in our mutuality.
The Beginning: Genesis
The creation story in Genesis speaks to women and men being made equally in the image of God. This is not just some abstract idea. It carries real-world implications. God gave both the woman and the man the same commission (Gen. 1:28). They shared authority over the earth and were God’s representatives. Further, woman as ezer kenegdo was a strength corresponding to the man (Gen. 2:18). God did not make her as the man’s inferior or assistant.
Patriarchy is a result of the fall and not God’s original design. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection work toward the harmonious redemption of all relationships, including husbands and wives.
Women in the Bible
The Bible is full of women who made decisions independently of men/husbands—Abigail, Hannah, Ruth, and Mary the mother of Jesus, to name a few. And God rewarded them. They trusted the wisdom that God had given them.
There were also many women who led others under the authority of God (not a man or husband). Examples of such women include Deborah and Huldah.
In the Gospels we see Jesus affirm and commission many women. Mary was a disciple at Jesus’s feet. Her sister Martha heard Jesus say, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well went and shared the good news with their communities. Jesus taught women, encouraged them to believe, and expected them to be accountable for their relationship with God.
Finally, Junia, Phoebe, Priscilla, and the women of Romans 16 led and co-labored in important church capacities alongside Paul.
Practical Teachings about Husbands and Wives—as Believers
Philippians 2:5–8 is the prime example of Christ’s voluntary mutual submission as he gave out of himself for others. It is strength and courage. It is a gospel call for all of us—women and men.
The only verse about authority in a marriage has to do with not depriving one another of physical intimacy (1 Cor. 7:4–5). There, Paul addresses the wife and husband equally. We also learned the husband is not the prophet, priest, and king of his home in 1 Peter 2:4–5, which speaks to the priesthood of all believers. And submission is part of Holy Spirit living (Eph. 5:18–21). It isn’t rote obedience. Submission is a spiritual discipline of reciprocity, mutuality, humility, and love. That means men should joyfully practice it too.
The theme of unity runs throughout the Bible. Unity is closely tied to every church member—including husbands and wives—utilizing their spiritual gifts and one-anothering, a theme which occurs over one hundred times in the New Testament. One-anothering language is based in love, unity, and humility. It includes giving preference to one another (Rom. 12:10), clothing ourselves in humility (1 Pet. 5:5), serving one another (Gal. 5:13), and being of the same mind with one another (Rom. 12:6; 15:5). It is reciprocal.
Freely Practicing Mutuality Can Lead to Healthier Marriages
We’ve found hopeful implications for our marriage as we looked to the Bible to guide our practice of making decisions together:
- We do the hard work of communicating, addressing issues, and resolving conflicts as they come up.
- We honor each other and place high value on the other’s needs, interests, opinions, and convictions.
- We honor our spiritual gifts and combine our individual strengths and interests.
- We seek to pray and make God the center of our decision making. Jesus leads and we follow.
- We respect the other’s wisdom and decision-making abilities.
- We are unified as one as we are attuned to the Holy Spirit.
- We engage in the spiritual discipline of mutual submission—practicing humility and deference to one another as God commands.
- We work toward one-anothering language and actions: unity, love, and humility.
Stop Asking Who Makes the Final Decision
After a thorough look at the complementarian and egalitarian arguments, many conversations with friends and mentors, and a deep meditation on the whole of the Bible, we were finally convinced that God paints a beautiful and mutually beneficial way forward for marriage. Ideas of hierarchy and an insistence on who leads or follows disappeared. There is no room for that when God calls both women and men to work together in harmony.
So to those who will insist on asking the question, “But who makes the final decision?” I would say this: let’s change the question. Let’s shift the narrative. How do we as married Christian people affect change in our homes and in the world? It’s not by a man stepping up into leadership and demanding the final say or a woman stepping down into an obedient role and relinquishing her God-given capabilities. It’s not denying gifts and strengths. It’s not keeping track of who did what or served the other more.
It looks like considering each other as fully developed people, which allows the sparkles of personality, giftings, and callings to shine through. We treat each other as Jesus treated women and men—as whole people capable and gifted with wisdom and insight from him. Changing the world looks like men and women loving like Christ. It looks a lot like humility. It looks a lot like mutual servanthood and working together. It looks like giving out of our strength toward a bigger, more beautiful gospel story. It looks a lot like Christ.