“Who’s in charge?” is a source of friction in many marriages. Latching on to the traditional concept of “male headship,” a number of Christian husbands use this mantra to abuse or marginalize their wives. I would like to suggest that there is a healing paradigm that would liberate couples and vastly improve marital relationships—seek the mind of the Lord together. This paradigm is unfolded in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.
1 Corinthians 7:1-5 is the only place in the New Testament where the word “authority” (Greek, exousia) is used with reference to marriage. Yet it is not the authority of the husband over the wife, or vice versa, that is in view, but rather a mutual authority over each other’s body. 1 Corinthians 7:4 states that the wife has authority over her husband’s body. One would think that this would be a hard pill to swallow for those who see “authority” as resting only in the husband’s headship.
In the context of this passage Paul states that a couple cannot separate from one another physically unless there is mutual consent (Greek, symphonou). Both parties must agree to the separation or it shouldn’t happen. There is, then, nothing in this text supporting the contention that the husband’s “authority” should override his wife’s differing viewpoint.
John Piper suggests that “mature masculinity accepts the burden of the final say in disagreements between husband and wife, but does not presume to use it in every instance” (What’s the Difference?, p. 32). But 1 Corinthians 7:5 challenges Piper’s assumed maxim. If the wife disagrees with a physical separation, the husband should not overrule his wife with the “final choice.” Biblically, such separation can occur only if both husband and wife are in “symphony” (unity) about such an action.
Now if mutual consent applies in an important issue like physical separation from one another for a period of time, wouldn’t it seem proper that coming to one-mindedness would be the broad decision-making model in a healthy marriage? Piper feels that “in a good marriage decision-making is focused on the husband, but is not unilateral” (What’s the Difference?, p. 32). Yet in light of 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, I suggest that decision-making should focus on finding the Lord’s mind together. Over the years the good ideas, solutions to problems, and answers to dilemmas will flow from both husband and wife as they seek the Lord as a couple for “symphony.”
1 Corinthians 7:5 throws a wrench into the works for those who would conclude that the husband has the “final say” under presumed authority commonly known as “male headship.” Paul teaches that unless the couple can agree on a course of action, it should not be executed. I suggest that this revelation invites us to re-examine what the husband’s headship really entails (cf. Gordon D. Fee, “1 Corinthians 7:1-7 Revisited,” Paul & the Corinthians: Studies On A Community in Conflict, Trevor J. Burke/J. Keith Elliott, eds.).
It is safe to say that most evangelical husbands have been affected by the “final say” position embedded in traditional ideas about “male headship.” I would invite believing husbands to meditate on 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, pray about it before the Lord, and discuss it with your precious wives. I think you will find that seeking the Lord together and waiting for the “symphony” that brings unity and peace is a far better way to function together in a Christ-honoring marriage. The traditional top-down, hierarchical, the-man-is-in-charge model is out of sync with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.
Remember, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 is the only place in Scripture where the word “authority” is mentioned in connection with marriage. The really striking thing about this “authority” is that it is a mutual authority over each other’s body, and has nothing to do with the husband’s alleged “authority” over his wife. The truth is, compared to traditional ideas about male headship since the 3rd century AD, Paul’s perspective here is revolutionary—especially when it is recalled that in the first century AD women were often viewed as property or chattel.